King County's Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) Initiative was made public by then-County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948) in February 2008. Citing sobering examples of the effects of inequality, Sims directed all departments of the county's executive branch to systematically consider the impacts of policy and funding decisions on disadvantaged and marginalized communities. In 2010 the county's first overall strategic plan embraced the initiative's goals, adopting as one of seven "guiding principles" a pledge to eliminate inequities and promote fairness and opportunity for all. Later that year the King County Council enacted an ordinance that extended the initiative's reach to all county departments and agencies, defined necessary terms, and established metrics to measure progress. Over the next several years, an interbranch team mandated by the ordinance worked on implementing a challenging agenda during difficult economic times. In January 2015 County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) and King County Council established a dedicated Office of Equity and Social Justice to assist county agencies and departments in implementing the ordinance. The next year, 2016, the office published a seven-year strategic plan -- a blueprint for ongoing and future efforts to foster a fair and just society for all county residents.
Upstream Causes, Downstream Effects
The dawn of the modern civil-rights era in the middle of the twentieth century spurred state and local governments in Washington (and, to a greater or lesser extent, across the nation) to address inequities that had long perpetuated the marginalization of disadvantaged communities. Lawmakers at all levels rooted out vestiges of racism and discrimination from statutes and regulations, and rights secured by state and federal constitutional provisions became powerful judicial tools to force change when political will was lacking. But despite good-faith efforts and considerable progress, more than a half-century later there remain vast disparities in health, wealth, and opportunity. Ron Sims, the first African American to be elected King County executive, wanted to try a new approach. He worked with others in his administration to find ways that county government could better provide justice and fairness to all communities. The Equity and Social Justice Initiative, which Sims unveiled in a guest column in The Seattle Times on February 10, 2008, was the product of those deliberations.
Both Sims's column and the initiative's inaugural publication issued shortly thereafter opened with a 1964 quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits" (King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, 2008, p. 2).
The ESJ report quantified the fact that significant efforts stretching over decades had fallen far short of achieving Dr. King's expectations. Among the findings were these:
- A child in south King County was more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as one in east King County.
- A worker making between $15,000 and $25,000 a year was 10 times less likely to have health insurance than one making $50,000 or more per year.
- A youth of color was six times more likely than a white youth to spend time in a state or county correctional facility.
- A southeast Seattle resident was four times more likely to die from diabetes than a resident of Mercer Island.
- A Native American baby was four times more likely to die before his or her first birthday than a white baby.
Additional grim statistics showed that the effects of such inequities were pernicious, profound, and life-long. A fundamental question facing Sims and his aides was why so much good-faith effort over so many years had failed in so many ways. Individual county departments and agencies, led and coordinated by the Public Health Department, had tackled unfairness in their specific realms of responsibility -- health care and criminal justice, for example -- but these efforts were seen as primarily addressing the "downstream" effects of inequity, rather than the root causes. Those preparing the initiative decided that an interconnected countywide effort was needed, one that would fully consider questions of fairness and equity from the very beginning of the policy-making process, demand increased coordination among the various departments and agencies in the county's executive branch, and incorporate data-driven methods of measuring needs, successes, and failures.
Not Business As Usual
Tackling the "root causes" of poverty and inequity has been part of the language of social-welfare efforts since at least the New Deal years of the 1930s. What the Equity and Social Justice Initiative brought to the effort was a systematic approach to ensure "that promoting equity is intentionally considered in the development and implementation of key policies and programs and in making funding decisions." Moving forward, projects would be viewed through an "equity lens" to determine their impact, positive or negative, on the goals of equity and social justice (King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, 2008, p. 12). The initiative declared that the county would "make equity and social justice central to its work," and promised, "This is not business as usual" (King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, 2008, p. 3).
The 2008 report also identified several "social determinants," which if made available to marginalized communities could disrupt the historical pattern of disparity in income leading all too often to disparity in outcome. Among those listed were the availability of affordable, decent housing; quality education; employment opportunities; safe neighborhoods and community recreation sites; social support; and good transportation (King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, 2008, p. 4). By incorporating notions of equity and fairness throughout the entire governmental process -- from early planning, to budget and funding decisions, to implementation and later evaluation -- it was believed that the county could significantly improve conditions for disadvantaged communities and ensure that future generations would have better opportunities to thrive in a more just and equitable society.
During 2008 and 2009 the county began putting the initiative's policies and practices into place across the executive branch. An update published in January 2009 emphasized that existing inequities were not random, but rather "caused by our past and current decisions and policies," and as such could be ameliorated by new approaches. The overarching goal was to provide "social justice," which meant "all aspects of justice, including social, legal, political and economic." Achieving social justice required "fair distribution of and access to public goods and services (mass transportation, quality schools, a clean environment), resources (social and financial wealth), and life opportunities" (King County Equity and Social Justice Update Report, 2009, p. 4).
An "Equity Impact Review Tool" was developed to help policymakers determine whether proposed actions "advance ... fairness, spread burdens fairly, and address historic patterns of institutional bias and discrimination" (Equity and Social Justice Update Report, 2009, p. 2). Three town-hall meetings between community leaders and county officials helped develop a common understanding of the issues and the contributions government, community groups, and individuals could make to resolving them. The county's executive departments reviewed their operations and developed specific plans to promote equity and social justice in their areas of responsibility. A Community Engagement Team comprising county staff members and community partners was trained in facilitating dialogue between often-competing interests. Meetings were held with more than 100 groups to discuss such issues as education, criminal justice, and public health.
Widening the Scope
In November 2009 Dow Constantine was elected to succeed Sims as King County executive. Any doubts about whether the Equity and Social Justice Initiative would carry on uninterrupted were resolved in July 2010, when the first countywide Strategic Plan was released. Entitled "Working Together for One King County," it laid out a four-year program "designed to guide our decisions in times of fiscal challenge as well as in future prosperity" (King County Strategic Plan, 2010-2014, p. 2). The plan covered all aspects of county governance, but among its seven "Guiding Principles" was a commitment to "serve all residents of King County by promoting fairness and opportunity and eliminating inequities" (King County Strategic Plan, 2010-2014, p. 8; emphasis in original). A substantial portion of the document dealt specifically with the issues identified in the first Equity and Social Justice Initiative report prepared during Sims's tenure.
But major hurdles remained. Because the initiative was a product of the county's executive branch, it was only binding on executive departments and agencies. (There are three branches of county government -- the executive, the legislative, and the judicial -- and each has its own departments, agencies, and offices.) Another problem was vocabulary; many operative terms were left undefined. A third was the stagnating state of the national and local economies. The King County Council (which represents the legislative branch of county government), working with the new executive, would soon act to substantially resolve the first two shortcomings. It would ensure that the initiative's goals and policies were refined, defined, and given a firm legal footing that applied across county government. What the council could not yet provide was adequate funding.
King County Ordinance 16948
On October 20, 2010, Dow Constantine signed King County Ordinance 16948 (codified as King County Code Sections 2.10.200 - 2.10.230). Passed 10 days earlier by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the nine-member council, this marked a key development: The ordinance extended the reach of the initiative to all county branches and their departments and agencies, provided needed definitions, and prescribed practices to implement the principles of the initiative.
The language of government does not always make for easy reading, but because the definitions and requirements established by the ordinance are fundamental to an understanding of the county's efforts, some specific wording demands recitation with greater fidelity than might otherwise be desirable.
After brief introductory language, Ordinance 16948 describes its raison d'être:
"Through adoption of the King County Strategic Plan ... King County has transformed its work on equity and social justice from an initiative to an integrated effort that applies the countywide strategic plan's principle of 'fair and just' intentionally in all the county does in order to achieve equitable opportunities for all people and communities. This ordinance establishes definitions and identifies the specific approaches necessary to implement and achieve the 'fair and just' principle that is embedded as a core element of the goals, objectives and strategies of the countywide strategic plan"(King County Ordinance 16948, Section 1).
The 2009 ESJ update had defined the term "inequities"; the 2010 ordinance provides a short but expansive definition of the positive side of the coin: "'Equity' means all people have full and equal access to opportunities that enable them to attain their full potential" (King County Ordinance 16948, Section 2C).
The "determinants of equity" were defined as "the social, economic, geographic, political and physical environment conditions in which people in our county are born, grow, live, work and age that lead to the creation of a fair and just society" (King County Ordinance 16948, Section 2B). They were specified, and 14 in number:
- Early childhood development
- Job and job training
- Health & human services
- Food systems
- Parks and natural resources
- Built and natural environment
- Community economic development
- Community and public safety
- Law and justice
- Equity in county practices
The ordinance next identified "foundational practices" that would "increase the county's influence on access to the determinants of equity." These practices, although expressed in somewhat general terms, describe how county government can advance the "fair and just" principle in "siting and delivery of services; policy development and decision making; education and communication within county government; and community engagement and partnerships" (Ordinance 16948, Section 2D).
There follow several specific directives. The first requires the executive to establish an "interbranch team" to facilitate accountability and coordination in implementing the "fair and just" principle across county government. The interbranch team is to be led by the county executive, who is required to "designate a department or agency to co-lead the effort" (King County Ordinance 16948, Section 3B). The remainder of the team is to include "directors or their designees of all branches, agencies and offices of county government" (King County Ordinance 16948, Section 3B).
Here the ordinance gets quite specific, with the interbranch team assigned five core responsibilities:
- To develop analytical tools to identify the equity impacts of policies and decisions and determine ways to amplify positive impacts and mitigate negative impacts;
- To develop guidelines for outreach, communication, and community engagement so that affected communities receive information and have the ability to help shape county policies and services;
- To identify focus areas and develop policies and actions that improve fairness in county government's organizational processes, including employment practices (hiring, training, retention, and promotion) and business practices, such as contracting, procurement, and grant writing;
- To provide a forum for information exchange and identification of opportunities for collaboration;
- To support the identification of annual work plans by each branch's departments and agencies on the application of equity and social justice practices.
The final obligation imposed by the ordinance requires the interbranch team to "design and publish an annual report for King County elected leadership, employees and the public on the status and trends in equity in the county and measures of accountability for work plans and results related to implementation of this ordinance" (King County Ordinance 16948, Section 3C).
Hard Times, Tight Budgets
The first several years of the effort corresponded with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the effects of funding constraints on the equity and social justice agenda are reflected in the annual reports required by the ordinance. Tracing the contents of those reports individually is beyond the scope of this essay and would only obscure the forest for the trees. But in a cover letter accompanying King County's proposed 2015-2016 budget, County Executive Dow Constantine noted that, after years of stress following the Great Recession of 2008, the overall economy was at last seeing improvement. Even so, the letter emphasized, the county's revenues remained inadequate to its needs due to "an outdated and profoundly broken tax system." Limited resources notwithstanding, Constantine affirmed that carrying forward the "fair and just" principle adopted in the 2010 ordinance remained a priority:
"We are committed to improving Equity and Social Justice Outcomes for all residents of King County. The County intentionally integrates the principle of "fair and just" in all it does, from hiring practices, to providing services, to making budget decisions" (Budget Letter).
The task was becoming only more difficult due to demographic trends. Acknowledging both those trends and the difficulty of applying ESJ's high principles to facts on the ground, the proposed budget noted:
"Since 2000, King County has experienced 11% population growth, virtually all of which has consisted of people of color. This emergent trend in diversity is especially pronounced for children and youth: 47% of children in the county, and 55% of children in South King County under the age of 18, are children of color. More than one out of four residents of the county speaks a language other than English, many with limited English proficiency (LEP), which often creates barriers to opportunities and the capacity to thrive.
"Differences in opportunities are also highly correlated to geographic place in King County. Compared to 1990, the poorest residents of King County are now concentrated in the suburbs -- poverty rates in the suburbs have nearly doubled since 1990, while remaining relatively stable in Seattle. Between 1999 and 2012, the number of low-income households increased by 49% and the number of high-income households grew by 47%, while the number of middle-income households increased only by 4%.
"Although there has been progress in prosperity for the County as a whole, socioeconomic differences in opportunities among and within marginalized communities continue to persist, and in many cases have increased. In King County, people of color, low-income residents and people with limited English proficiency are more likely to experience racism, underemployment, low educational attainment, poor health outcomes, incarceration, and loss of opportunity" (2015-2016 Proposed Budget, 45, footnotes omitted).
A New Phase
The sixth annual Equity and Social Justice report, issued in December 2015, cited still more unhappy statistics, but some successes as well. An introductory letter by County Executive Constantine highlighted in particular a startling increase in income inequality:
"It's axiomatic that economic growth is driven by a strong middle class. But in King County, 95 percent of the net new households created since 2000 earn either less than $35,000 a year, or more than $125,000. One can quibble over the definition of middle class, but the dearth of new households earning anywhere near the 2013 median income of $72,000 is troubling" (2015 Equity and Social Justice Report, p. 2).
On the more positive side, Constantine's letter noted that the efforts had brought some tangible results, "including reducing the rate of persons without medical insurance from 16 percent to below 10 percent, and creating a low-income transit fare to keep money in the pockets of those who most need it" (2015 Equity and Social Justice Report, p. 3). A month-by-month calendar included in the report showed additional incremental progress on a number of fronts.
Despite the challenges, Constantine reaffirmed his and his administration's commitment to equity and social justice: "My core commitment for King County has been to create conditions under which each person can have a fair shot at success -- regardless of race or wealth or place of residence. And, by fair shot, I don’t mean a long shot" (2015 Equity and Social Justice Report, p. 3).
Even though the county has a structural budget gap driven by the 1-percent property-tax-increase cap, in the year leading up to the annual report, the county executive took significant steps toward fulfilling the pledges first made by the initiative some seven years before. First, in January 2015 Constantine and the county council created an Office of Equity and Social Justice within the executive branch. Its staff was small, but all its efforts were dedicated to working with the interbranch (now called "Inter-Branch") team to "lead, support and coordinate internal and regional equity activities" (2015 Equity and Social Justice Report, p. 8).
A second, and equally important, step came five months later, when work began in May to put together a formal strategic plan that would guide the county's equity and social-justice agenda through the year 2022.
And in July the county executive and council authorized a six-year, $392-million levy proposal, entitled "Best Starts for Kids," to be placed on the November ballot. The measure was short on specifics, but explicitly called for funding programs to combat homelessness and to provide in-home nursing consultation for first-time mothers. Fifty percent of the remaining money from the anticipated annual revenue of $65 million was to be allocated to early-childhood learning programs and 35 percent to developing interventions for at-risk youth. An advisory board would be established to make recommendations for specific programs. Later, but at an unspecified time, the successes and failures would be measured through quantifiable indicators that included healthy-baby, obesity, school-suspension, and truancy rates.
To critics, Constantine argued that the lack of detail would increase accountability by giving the county the flexibility to undertake a variety of programs not specifically mandated by the proposition and abandon those that didn't work. On November 3, 2015, King County voters, who regularly demonstrate a willingness to absorb increased property taxes to support worthy causes, passed the measure by a comfortable margin.
The 2016-2022 Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan
To summarize, the Equity and Social Justice Initiative was announced by King County Executive Ron Sims in 2008. With the support of his successor, Dow Constantine, its principles were incorporated into the county's first overall strategic plan in 2010. The original initiative's basic principles were affirmed and its scope broadened to include all branches of government in an ordinance passed unanimously by King County Council later that year.
Over the ensuing years it would become clear just how difficult it would be. Although the fundamental principle of equity was summarized in two words in the 2010 ordinance -- "fair" and "just" -- the problems it targeted were many, stubborn, intertwined, and most often not fixable by government acting alone. By 2015 it was apparent that greater success would require greater coordination and greater cooperation between and among county government, community organizations, philanthropies, businesses, other local governments, and educators. The opening that year of the Office of Equity and Social Justice, followed by the development of a dedicated strategic plan, promised to provide more coherence to the undertaking and a roadmap for the difficult but vitally important journey to equity and fairness.
Work on the 2016-2022 Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan began in May 2015,was completed about 15 months later, and made public in September 2016. The 80-page document represented a massive amount of work and consultation and provided "a blueprint for change" (Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan, p. 3). It acknowledged the contributions of more than 160 organizations and other entities representing a wide range of interests and activities that had participated in its development. A small sampling from the list of participants gives some idea the scope of the effort -- African American Advisory Council to the City of Seattle Police Department, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bulgarian Cultural & Heritage Center of Seattle, El Centro de la Raza, Gender Justice League, Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Somali Youth and Family Club, White Center Community Development Association.
The strategic plan is a complex and comprehensive document that defies easy condensation. At its most basic level, the plan identifies four strategies the county will use for investing its resources:
- Tackling problems upstream and where needs are greatest
- Investing with community partnerships
- Investing in county employees
- Doing so with accountable and transparent leadership
Although the strategic plan anticipates a six-year time frame, one of its first sections, titled "Pro-Equity Policy Agenda," identifies eight specific areas of concern (which largely reflect the 14 "determinants of equity" established by the 2010 ordinance) and for each makes "a commitment to advancing equity in the next three years" (Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan, p. 19). They are:
- Child & youth development
- Economic development & jobs
- Environment & climate
- Health & human services
- Information & technology
- Justice system
- Transportation & mobility
For the longer term, six "goal areas" are identified, with individual goals within each characterized as "high-level and aspirational" (Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan, p. 51). Because progress is to a large degree resource-dependent, progress toward these goals would be implemented in two-year cycles to correspond with the biennial budget process. The goal areas are:
- Leadership, operations, and services
- Plans, policies, and budgets
- Workplace and work force
- Community partnerships
- Communication and education
- Facility and system improvement
Separate sections of the strategic plan are devoted to each of the goal areas. They begin with a review of the current situation within that goal area, followed by a section entitled "How We Will Make a Difference," which summarizes in broad language some basic steps that are anticipated. For every goal area there is a list of either three or four specific goals and a description of their objectives. Finally, in recognition of the ambitious reach of the goals and their dependence on adequate funding for full success, a section entitled "Minimum Standards" summarizes for each goal area the least that is expected.
The foregoing is but the briefest account of King County government's efforts to evaluate nearly all of its actions through an equity lens. From Ron Sims's 2008 executive initiative it has grown to a comprehensive plan of a breadth and detail that may well be unprecedented among regional governments. There will be successes and failures, but a course has been set that promises to improve the daily lives and future prospects of many who live in King County's marginalized communities.