The welcome sign to Aberdeen, Washington. (Michael THURSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
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ABERDEEN, Wash. — The further I drove from Seattle toward the coast, the denser the grove of evergreen trees on a drizzly July morning. Off of the Olympia Highway,  a green welcome-to-Aberdeen sign bore the song lyrics “Come as you are” — an ode to grunge band Nirvana, which formed in the old lumber town in 1987. 

I was there to visit the team at Firelands Workers Action, an organization that advocates for good-paying jobs in Washington’s timber country. 

Melissa Hellmann in Aberdeen, Washington. (Melissa Hellmann / Center for Public Integrity)

While reporting on state taxation, I was reminded that Washington — a place I’d called home for over five years until last fall — had policies that place a heavy tax burden on poor people. Stina Janssen, Firelands’ executive director, suggested I visit Aberdeen to see what state disinvestment looks like. So I tacked the visit onto a pre-planned trip for a best friend’s wedding.

Most states make poor residents pay a greater share of their income in taxes than wealthier people do. Across the country, the share of state and local taxes paid by the lowest-income households is 54% more than what the wealthiest households contribute, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, every dollar counts. A higher sales tax applied to diapers or a single increase in your property tax bill can pose tough decisions. And the burden of these taxes has been even more acute recently with high levels of inflation that have driven up the cost of essential goods. 

This is particularly true in Grays Harbor County, where the poverty rate is over 50% higher than the state average. David Henson, a longtime resident and Firelands volunteer, said the sales tax on cat food has made the item one of his greatest monthly expenses. He pointed to that and rising property taxes as the reason he’s unable to replace his 20-year-old car that needs new tires and belts. 

In Aberdeen I saw houses with peeling paint that were damaged by annual flooding. Potholes littered the roads throughout a mobile home park where homes suffered mold growth.  

A homeless encampment under the Chehalis River Bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, on July 6, 2022. In 2020, the county poverty rate was more than 50% higher than the state’s. (Melissa Hellmann / Center for Public Integrity)

“Everything is connected,” said Edith Baltazar, a Firelands organizer, from the back of the car during a tour of downtown that afternoon. Without health insurance or the funds for healthy homes, she said, people get sick and then their mental health declines. She thinks that this accounts for the area’s high suicide rates

With the loss of so many jobs, especially unionized ones with good pay in the area, Janssen said young people in the county don’t see a future there. “The feeling that our best hope is young people leaving is what makes a community die,” she told me. 

Tax structures that negatively impact low-income earners and people of color today are shaped by state laws that were rooted in racism and classism, researchers told me and other reporters working on this project. And because they’re often codified in the state constitutions, the systems are very difficult to change. 

“If the wealthy people … pay what they owe, there should be enough resources for everybody in the whole state,” Baltazar said back at the Firelands office. The walls were lined with posters with the message “Rebuild Timber Country” against an orange background. 

On the ride back from Aberdeen I blared Nirvana as I imagined lead vocalist Kurt Cobain driving the same route to Seattle early in his career. Cobain’s moody crooning mirrored the endlessly gray sky. I thought about Cobain’s depression that likely started in Aberdeen and how Baltazar noted the lack of mental health resources there. 

State tax policy could help address inequality. But in most states, it just makes things worse.

Our state taxation project launched today with a story that takes a nationwide look at this trend, with a significant focus on Washington state and elements that range from a quiz to an animated explainer.

We’re still reporting on this, and we’d appreciate your tips. Let us know what to look at:

Public Integrity reporter Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this piece.

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Melissa Hellmann is an award-winning reporter who covers racial, gender and economic inequality. Prior...