King County Executive Dow Constantine
April 27, 2015
Federal Way Community Center
Chair Phillips, Councilmembers, elected leaders, valued employees, people of King County, and Mayor Farrell, thank you for inviting us here to Federal Way.
As you know, it is customary to begin ceremonial speeches like this with a long list of accomplishments. We, most assuredly, have such a list, but with apologies to all those who have worked so hard to achieve so much, I will spare us all that tradition today.
Over the past five years, I’ve shared how our reforms of County operations have carried us toward our immodest goal of making this the best-run government in America.
And, as a region, our local economy is far outpacing the state and the nation. King County is prosperous. We have added more than 80,000 new jobs over the past two years, a seven percent increase. At less than 4.5 percent, our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation. And our median household income at $69,000 is well above that of the state and the nation.
From our triple-A bond rating, to the region’s enviable job growth, we have much to celebrate. So let’s cut to the chase: Our economy is robust. Our county is prosperous. The state of the County is strong.
And yet, for a county that prides itself on sustainability and opportunity, there is a real and troubling trend underneath all the good news. An accelerating crisis of income inequality that threatens to undermine our economic future by undermining our middle class.
Ours is an economy fueled by innovation, and the innovative workforce that is drawing jobs to our region is the product of a diverse, inclusive, and well-educated middle class.
In the highly competitive global economy of the 21st century, no one is expendable. That is why, if King County is to continue to prosper, we must give all of our children—regardless of race, or family income, or zip code—the best start in life we can.
On average, King County families are doing well. But that is only on average, for the disturbing truth i, almost all of our job growth is coming at the very top and the very bottom of the income spectrum.
Since the year 2000, King County has seen a net increase of 85,000 households, yet less than four percent of these are middle-income. All the rest of the increase in new households is split, pretty evenly, between those earning over $125,000 a year, and those earning under $35,000. There is very little growth in between.
This is a startling development. For the first time in postwar history, King County’s middle class is shrinking. It took a century of hard-fought economic gains to build the thriving middle class that built King County. But we are watching our proud legacy of broad prosperity erode away in only a matter of years.
And as King County has grown less equal, the racial and geographic distribution of poverty has grown less equal as well. Over the past 15 years, more than 80 percent of the growth in poverty has come in the suburbs, outside of Seattle. Throughout the county, formerly middle-income neighborhoods are becoming either richer, or poorer.
Here, and throughout the nation, below-poverty households are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color. The darker your skin, the more likely you are to join the growing ranks of the working poor.
Of course, the crisis of income inequality is not unique to King County, and many of its causes are beyond our local control. Nearly four decades of trickle-down economics, Wall Street deregulation, and a concerted political attack on the power of workers to organize have stressed and squeezed the middle class nationwide.
From 1950 to the late 70s, during the heyday of the Great American Middle Class, 90 percent of American households enjoyed 70 percent of all income growth. That was pretty good. Yes, the rich did get richer, but as the economy grew, so did the middle class. Back then, a rising tide really did lift all boats.
But nationwide since 1980, 100 percent of all net new income growth has gone to the top 10 percent. And between 2009 and 2012 here in Washington state, 175 percent of all income growth has gone to just the top 1 percent. One-hundred seventy-five percent. Do the math.
This mocks the fundamental principle on which we were all raised: That if we work hard, we can all succeed.
It is unfair. It is un-American. And it is economically unsustainable.
To understand why this dangerous combination of income inequality and racial disparity so threatens our prosperity, we need to understand the way the real economy works.
A modern technological economy is driven not by simplistic approaches like tax cuts or deregulation, but by a virtuous cycle between innovation and demand. Innovation is how we solve problems and raise living standards. Consumer demand is how we incentivize and distribute new innovations.
And it is economic inclusion—the full economic participation of as many people as possible, from as many different backgrounds—that drives both innovation and demand.
Regulatory efficiency is important. But it wasn’t lax regulation that made Seattle the best place for Amazon, it was our people: A well-educated and innovative workforce that helped Amazon grow sales to more than $89 billion last year.
Tax policy matters. But it wasn’t tax breaks that attracted SpaceX to Redmond, it was our people: A uniquely talented and highly-skilled aerospace workforce available nowhere else—the product of a middle class that could afford to educate itself and its children.
Our local economy did not grow from the top down; it grew from the bottom up and the middle out. And if King County is to continue to grow, and to grow more prosperous—if we are to continue to attract high-paying jobs like those at Amazon and SpaceX—then we cannot become a region of just the very rich and the very poor.
Our greatest resource, our greatest competitive advantage, has always been the talent, innovation, and hard work of our people.
And if we want to maintain this advantage, then we must give all of our people and all of our children the education, the infrastructure, and the opportunity to fully participate in our economy as innovators, as entrepreneurs, and as consumers.
This is not just a moral imperative. It is an urgent economic necessity.
Throughout our history, King County has been fortunate to be a magnet for immigrants. And immigrants bring with them the cognitive and cultural diversity that is the key to innovation, and thus the key to economic success. That is why on average, immigrants and their offspring file more patents, start more businesses, and create more jobs.
Diversity drives innovation, because the more people we have approaching a problem from different perspectives, the faster and more efficiently that problem is solved. And economies are all about solving problems. Building a better airplane. Delivering a better customer experience. Serving a better cup of coffee.
From Boeing to Costco to Microsoft to Starbucks to Amazon, King County has prospered because our people have excelled at solving problems. But income inequality puts our future prosperity at risk by denying more of our children the opportunity to fully contribute as part of a well-educated middle class.
If we want to prosper in an economy fueled by innovation, then we must give all of our children—regardless of circumstance—the education and the opportunity to bring their own unique talents to bear to solve the enormous problems that lie ahead, Ending hunger, curing disease, confronting climate change.
If these overwhelming problems are to be solved, it will be by some child out there. Not necessarily a child of the well-educated or the well-heeled. Just a child who grows into a productive, contributing adult. No one is expendable.
The sad truth in America today is that a top predictor of a child’s success in life is the income of the household in which that child is raised. Our goal must be to break this connection between income and outcomes.
One of the worst outcomes is for children who are victims of abuse, neglect, homelessness, or mental illness is to land in the juvenile justice system. Every child who drops out, who gets kicked out, who is locked up, marks our failure as a community to provide the love and care and support that every child needs.
These kids aren’t failing us—we are failing them.
It’s true that King County has been a leader in creating alternatives to juvenile detention: Cutting the number of youth detained from a daily high of 205 in the year 2000, to as low as 45 just last year.
But even as the total number of youth in detention has dropped, the racial disparity in the system has grown. Black youth represent eight percent of the youth population in King County. Today, they make up half of those in juvenile detention.
That’s not right. I know I speak for all of us in saying that racial disparity has no place in our justice system, especially not in a system responsible for the well-being of our youth.
Making the justice system impervious to the mostly unacknowledged, but nevertheless real biases that each of us carry with us is a tall order. But we have to approach it as achievable.
That’s why last month, as One King County, we launched an aggressive approach to limit the use of secure detention—with specific targets for diverting youth whose only offense might be skipping school, running from foster care, or missing a court date.
With strong leadership from the Superior Court, the Prosecutor, the Public Defender, the Sheriff, and the Council, we are shifting toward a restorative and transformative model of juvenile justice, and I thank you all for your partnership.
With that assurance, I was able to cut by nearly half the number of detention beds in the new facility being built to replace the aging and dilapidated Youth Services Center—freeing even more space for the primary mission of reconciliation and redemption.
In this new paradigm, we make three core commitments:
We commit to understanding and ending racial disparity in the juvenile justice system.
We commit to preventing homelessness, and treating mental illness rather than criminalizing it.
And we commit to partnering with schools and law enforcement agencies to ensure there can be no such thing as a school-to-prison pipeline.
To achieve these goals, I will soon convene a steering committee of leaders from communities across the County, including the 19 school districts in King County and the many police agencies in our 39 cities.
As a county that prides itself on taking its name from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we can and must do better.
A full century before Dr. King, Frederick Douglass observed: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Strong children require strong communities, and it will take all of us working together across sectors to ensure that every child has the opportunity to fulfill her potential, and to participate fully in her community.
This is the challenge we first set for ourselves in our King County Strategic Plan.
This Council charted a course toward opportunity for all our people and communities by enshrining the principles of equity and social justice into law.
This Council unanimously embraced a vision for a healthier King County through guidance and support for a Health and Human Services Transformation Plan that focuses on prevention.
And this Council described a better future for our youth through development of the Youth Action Plan.
Today, I propose to fund the work that is required to deliver on these shared goals through Best Starts for Kids—a six-year levy, raising 58-million dollars in the first year.
Best Starts for Kids brings together a set of proven and promising strategies, driven by science, to get to outcomes that will help children develop the cognitive, emotional, and social skills necessary to reach their full potential. Here is what the science and research tell us:
First, prevention works. The latest brain science makes clear that prevention is the most effective and least expensive way to set children on a path toward success.
Second, invest early. Healthy babies grow into healthy adults, and the earlier the investment, the greater the return.
Third, investments must carry forward. A child’s brain continues to develop throughout the teenage years and into early adulthood.
And fourth, communities matter. Healthy, safe communities support families that can raise healthy children, ensuring that all our kids have a fair shot at success.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s brain science—conducted right here in King County at the University of Washington.
That science tells us that early experiences—positive and negative—have a dramatic impact on the physical shape and organization of the brain—experiences that help determine not just what we learn, but our capacity to learn and succeed.
The science tells us that 85 percent of brain growth is complete by age three, and that home visits and developmental screening in the first five years can ensure that when kids get to school, they are ready to learn.
The science tells us that as a child’s brain grows from age five to 24, early interventions that detect emerging issues and reduce risky behaviors help lock in developmental gains that support lifelong success.
And research tells us that with initiatives like Communities of Opportunity, our partnership with The Seattle Foundation, we can empower communities themselves to lead and create lasting change.
Invest early. Sustain the gain.
These are among the principles that made it so important to save the Public Health centers in White Center and Northshore, and here in Federal Way and nearby Auburn. Our employees get it. I want to thank them for making the sacrifices necessary to keep the centers open. And thank you Mayors Farrell and Backus, and the city councils of Federal Way and Auburn, for joining us to save critical services for mothers and infants.
We know these strategies work—from data and from personal stories like that of Bryce Kasota, whom we are honored to have with us today. As a single mother before she finished high school, Bryce faced an uncertain future. She credits a Public Health employee from the Nurse-Family Partnership with helping her escape an abusive relationship, and helping her become the supportive mother her daughter needs.
I know you’d all love to chat with Bryce after the speech, but she needs to duck out early to take an exam at Seattle Central College, where she’s on track to graduate, with honors, earning an Associate Degree in Nursing with a 3.9 GPA. So before you go, Bryce, let me say: Congratulations. We know you’ll do well.
This is what I’m talking about. We’re already doing some of these things on a small scale. We’re intervening in lives, helping people get past barriers, helping them become the parents their children need – because we know that first teacher needs to be there for that kid to have a different trajectory in life. We can do that at scale. We can make sure we are meeting the young, at-risk mother and making it possible for her, or for that couple, to raise that kid successfully so the child has a chance to succeed.
In King County only about a quarter of young people have access during school years to mental health screening, for example. Through Best Starts for Kids, we can make that available to all, so that little problems, caught early, don’t become big problems that overwhelm a person’s life. This is simple, straightforward work that needs to be done.
These proposed investments in prevention, intervention, and opportunity aren’t free. The levy will cost the average homeowner about a dollar a week. Just an ounce of prevention. But the payoff is huge.
The failure to invest early leads to much costlier crisis interventions later—costlier for the individual, for society, and for county and city budgets. And, of course, jail is the costliest and least effective crisis intervention of all.
But our policies are driven by more than just a cost-benefit analysis, for the ultimate goal of Best Starts for Kids, of juvenile justice reform, and the other initiatives in our Strategic Plan, is to sever that link between income and outcomes—to create a King County where the circumstance of one’s birth no longer defines the course of one’s life.
That is the right and fair thing to do for our children. But it is also the right and necessary thing to do for our economy.
For decades, we’ve been led to believe we must accept a tradeoff between economic fairness and economic growth. This just isn’t true. In a highly competitive global economy where the most innovative companies seek out the most diverse, inclusive, and well-educated workforce, fairness and growth go hand in hand.
Income inequality has forced its way into the public arena. Everybody is now talking about it. But here in King County, we are fortunate to have both the wealth and the willingness to confront it head on—by investing in our people, by investing in our communities, and by giving all our children the best start in life we can.
After all, that is the American Dream. And I invite you to join me in renewing its promise.