The Waif and the Grocery Tax

Dear Group,

A thin young woman standing on a corner in a middle class residential neighborhood on the north side of Spokane looked down at something on a clipboard, looked up, glanced both ways, squinted at street signs. It was two days before the 2018 General Election. She had to be a canvasser, but one I didn’t recognize. My fellow canvassers and I were a committed volunteer army knocking doors for Lisa Brown out of the Shadle Library on a Sunday afternoon. She was something else, one of very few young, lone canvassers I had seen in all the weeks leading up to the election. 

“Hi! You must be knocking on doors, too. Who or what are you canvassing for?”

“The grocery tax,” she said, a little uncertainly. I’ll never forget the ensuing conversation. She had just turned eighteen. She was happy to have a job, no matter it was part time gig employment with no benefits, a job that would abruptly end in two days. She smiled a little at the thought of a hundred and five dollars for a six hour shift working an inexpensive smartphone and a clipboard, knocking on doors. She would save the money for a deposit to rent an apartment. She said she’d been living on the streets since age thirteen when her mother kicked her out of the house., Since then her mother has kept for herself the money she receives from social security for her daughter’s support.

She offered that she’d “been into drugs,” but with her boyfriend’s help she’d escaped that scene. She would sleep that night in the park or “under a bridge,” as she often did. Where we stood it was fifty degrees and dropping quickly as the sun began to set. I shivered for her in my many layers of clothing. 

I asked her about the “grocery tax initiative” for which she was canvassing, Initiative 1634. We were several sentences into our discussion before I understood her assigned task was to convince people to vote “yes” to “protect Washington families from taxes on our food,” as the door-hanger she finally offered me explained. She had a script in the app on her tiny smartphone. One of her talking points was that Initiative 1634 (aka the “Yes! to Affordable Groceries” Initiative) would prevent government from taxing the groceries of “hard working families and people on fixed incomes”…and keep government from giving the money to those un-deserving “welfare people.” I did not inquire just who she thought those “welfare people” might be.

She clearly had a job to do, a script to get across. She seemed to genuinely believe there were evil forces in government anxious to impose taxes on food. There wasn’t a glimmer of understanding when I mentioned to her any politician offering to tax real food would be committing political suicide, that this initiative was only to pre-emptively protect the sugary drink industry from taxes on their fattening, diabetes-abetting products, that protecting wholesome food from predacious taxation was just clever framing. It had escaped her notice that the fine print (on the door-hanger, required by Washington State law) identified four of the top five contributors to 1634 as “The Coca-Cola Company; PepsiCo, Inc.; Keurig Dr Pepper and Red Bull North America.”

Every dime of the 22 million dollars raised by the Initiative Committee “Yes! to Affordable Groceries” the organization that hatched and promoted Initiative 1634, came from businesses, 20 million of it from three of those sugary drink producers, all with out-of-state headquarters, Not a dime came from a consumer or taxpayer group. Apparently, 20 million dollars is chump change for the sugary drink companies to spend to induce voters to preempt a tax that, if enacted, might put a dent in their lavish profits. There were only ten contributors to  “Yes! to Affordable Groceries” initiative committee. The last three were “in kind” donations of less than $300. The very last one, $198, came from  the “WASHINGTON STATE REPUBLICAN PARTY NON-EXEMPT.” 

Where were all these millions spent? The WA State Public Disclosure Commission tells us. Click the link and browse. Media companies are smiling all the way to the bank. 

How much was spent by the opposition? The Public Disclosure Commission tells us: a total of $28,693, spent by the Healthy Kids Coalition. Contributors included the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition.  Apparently, the sugary drink industry’s money and clever framing was so overwhelming resistance seemed a waste of scarce funds.

What was gained by the citizens of Washington by the passage of Initiative 1634? Gee. We’ll get to buy sugary drinks without the terrible threat of taxation! (Sorry, I cannot resist sarcasm.) 

The sugary drink industry spent 20 million in advertising–and even with that got just 55% of the vote. I imagine they feel it was worth every cent to pull the wool over the eyes of just enough voters to buy insurance against the risk of profit loss…

And the guileless young, homeless woman canvassing sincerely for Initiative 1634, canvassing  in the hope of protecting people from a non-existent threat of a grocery tax, canvassing in the cold for $105/day, working for a boss she said was based in Wyoming, not realizing she was really working to shield soft drink companies from a sin tax? She saved her $105 share of the $20 million the soft drink companies spent. She planned to save up the money…and sleep that night outdoors.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. The politics of initiatives are peculiar. I’m still trying to figure out how the promotors of Initiative 1634 got to use Minivan, the smartphone app developed by and for Democrats. I’m not sure how that happened or who to ask.

P.P.S. I almost never give money to panhandlers on the street. This young woman was not panhandling. She was working, but I found her story so compelling I reached in my pocket to offer her some money in the hope might use it find a warm place to sleep. She politely waved it away…