FEATURED STATE: Washington
Beginning in 2006, a handful of Washington legislators from diverse backgrounds—business, social services, criminal justice and health care—joined an array of public and private efforts to help low-income households accumulate savings and learn how to better manage their money. Today, in 2015, thanks in large part to the role played by its legislators, Washington has become a leader among states in the asset building arena.
Lawmakers embraced the idea that, with the right incentives and tools, low-income families can get on a path to financial independence. By efficiently coordinating state policy and local movements, Washington now has a statewide infrastructure that’s helping people move from financial survival to economic self-sufficiency.
The key to Washington’s success is a network of local asset building coalitions. In 2005, only one such organization existed. Legislators working within their communities saw the energy and capacity for more and they enacted a small pilot program to facilitate additional start-ups. By 2009, $1.3 million in state money had spurred the growth of 14 new community asset building coalitions that, in turn, had leveraged $7 million more from private and federal sources.
Since 2006, the Asset Building Unit within the Department of Commerce, along with the state-supported Washington Asset Building Coalition and its constituent local coalitions, have worked together on several major initiatives.
Each local coalition recruits and trains volunteers for the state’s free tax preparation campaign. As a result, steep increases have occurred in the amount of federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) dollars received by Washington residents. The state has allocated more than $2 million dollars to its Individual Development Account (IDA) program, an investment that’s maximized by the local coalitions, which use local resources to recruit participants, manage accounts and offer the required financial education classes that have already led to more than 60 success stories. In addition to playing a crucial role in statewide policies, the local coalitions have also created several innovations and successful community initiatives.
- Asset Building – Local leadership
In 2005, Representative Jeanne Darneille of Pierce County convened a series of meetings in her district on asset building. The discussions sparked interest among a broad swath within the community—from banks and credit unions to nonprofits and veterans’ groups. Darneille soon merged her efforts with Associated Ministries, a local Christian organization that advocated asset building as an alternative to traditional poverty programs. With a $10,000 grant from the Russell Foundation, Associated Ministries hosted a retreat to give diverse members of the asset building community an opportunity to coordinate their plans. Soon after, the Pierce County Asset Building Coalition was born. Thanks to an initial $75,000 seed grant and continued funding from public and private sources, the coalition now has 50 community partners that collaborate to administer Individual Development Accounts, teach financial education classes, promote the Earned Income Tax Credit and organize volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) sites, including volunteer recruitment and training. Local organizations like Pierce County’s that house multiple asset building initiatives under one roof became the template for others in Washington and the basis for the state’s energetic support of asset building as a policy framework.
- Asset Building – State Support
During the 2005-06 session, Washington laid critical groundwork for the asset building efforts that were taking root across the state. Senate Bill 1408 created an Individual Development Account Program within the Department of Commerce and allocated $2 million for matching money and administration during the following four years. House Bill 3156 reestablished the state’s EITC outreach effort. It also allocated $40,000 in seed grants for a pilot program to develop community asset building coalitions similar to Pierce County’s. Both bills received bipartisan sponsorship and near unanimous approval in the Legislature. By 2009, $1.3 million in state money had helped fund 14 new asset building coalitions that, in turn, had leveraged $7 million more from private and federal sources. The Seattle-King County Asset Collaboration, for instance, received $85,000 from the state in 2008, but its total budget was more than $1.2 million. In addition to allocating funds, the Department of Commerce, in conjunction with the statewide Washington Asset Building Coalition, also empowers community coalitions by offering ongoing technical assistance and convening regular conferences so local leaders can learn from each other and national experts in the field. Due to budget shortfalls, state approrpriations to asset building coaltions were reduced over time. In 2013, the Washington legislature had appropriated $234,000 to the asset building colations.
- Asset Building – Coordinated Efforts
To avoid scattering asset building programs across different administrative agencies, each with its own goals and methods, Washington drew up a comprehensive asset building strategy and grouped integral initiatives such as EITC outreach and IDAs within the Department of Commerce. But instead of building a host of new programs and dictating how they should operate, legislators chose to support the start-up and expansion of local asset building organizations. By positioning itself as a central hub within a statewide network, the state minimizes administrative costs. It also gives communities the flexibility to meet their particular needs and encourages them to forge partnerships that take advantage of local talents and resources, including banks and credit unions, United Ways, social service organizations and faith-based groups. This tactic encouraged rapid growth of a statewide infrastructure with deep local roots. As a result, Washington’s modest investment in asset building appears to be paying off. For example, each community coalition that receives state money is required to promote the federal EITC and offer free tax preparation within its region. In 2007, volunteers recruited and trained by local asset building coalitions prepared almost 70,000 free tax returns, which brought $26 million in EITC refunds to the state—a 23 percent increase over 2006. In addition to making it easier to coordinate an efficient statewide effort, Washington’s empowerment of local coalitions also spurs creativity. With the help of seven sponsors – including the Federal Reserve and the FDIC—The Seattle-King County Asset Building Collaborative has convened 20 banks and credit unions and 60 community partners for its Bank on Seattle-King County initiative. The goal is to connect low-income residents with mainstream financial services. As of mid-2010, the program had opened more than 37,000 new checking and savings accounts, most of them for first-time customers.
- Small Investments: Supporting Microenterprise
In 2006, a group of local microenterprise developers collaborated with state legislators to support micro-entrepreneurs, whose businesses employ about 20 percent of Washington workers. In 2007, lawmakers passed the Microenterprise Act (SB 5652), which authorized the state to partner with the newly formed Washington State Microenterprise Association (WSMA). Legislators have since allocated nearly $1 million for administration and grants to local microenterprise development organizations (MDOs). Community Capital Development in Seattle, for instance, received state funding to help provide counseling and technical assistance to minority and low-income micro-entrepreneurs. Overall, the WSMA has awarded grants of up to $15,000 to more than 15 different organizations. Money for microenterprise loans and training usually comes from a variety of sources – public, private, local, state and federal. Washington’s competitive grant process helps ensure that state dollars go to experienced MDOs such as Community Capital that already have diverse funding streams and a history of helping small businesses succeed. To further encourage savvy investment, Washington authorized microenterprise as an approved community reinvestment strategy for financial institutions.
View Washington's State Profile for more notable legislation, state action plans and participants by year.
Updated August 2015
Hear It From Them
Q and A with Representative Jeannie Darneille
Hear from lawmakers and others who have been intimately involved with their state’s efforts to create opportunities for low-income working families. Legislators explain why they feel these issues are important. They also discuss the factors that helped them be successful – both in the statehouse and at home in their district.
Q: How did you get involved in asset building?
A: I had been working on poverty throughout my adult life, and I realized that all my work had been defensive. In other words, I had been dealing with people who were already experiencing poverty. Then I saw that this work could really prevent poverty. That’s why I got interested in asset building – to be proactive.
Q: Why do you think it’s good public policy?
A: There’s certainly the obvious: when you provide families with the tools they need to succeed, the financial benefits to families then trickle up to communities, to cities and eventually to the state. This is a place where we can have nothing but success. This is apolitical. The fight on poverty, for example, often has been a fight between parties. Since we began our multi-year commitment to asset building, however, we’ve seen a diverse group of people working on it. Because it’s a win for everybody—for the family, the corner grocery, the small business association—it goes round and round. Legislators and community leaders become excited and commit to it.
Read Full Q and A
State Programs Links
About the Opportunities for Working Families Meeting
Since 2003, the NCSL/AECF Partnership on Family Economic Success has held a yearly meeting to give lawmakers a chance to convene with their colleagues and discuss solutions to the challenges faced by low-income working families. Legislative leadership from 10 states send small teams of legislators to the forum. Participants hear from leading experts and practitioners and develop an action plan that is relevant to their state.