Current economic package is empty for the majority of ordinary Americans

November 11, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SEVEN-THIRTY Friday morning on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, with the temperature struggling into the mid-40s and a blustery wind pushing vagrant wads of overnight trash up the street, it's the usual crowd out there.

They're people waiting at bus stops with their hands wrapped around steaming cups of coffee to stay warm. They're nurses and maintenance workers and cleaning women and public-works guys on their way to jobs. They're schoolchildren whose parents are dropping them off early at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School before racing off to work. They're elderly folks standing in the doorway of The Avenue Market, trying to get out of the chill until their rides show up. They're early-risers ducking into Lafayette Market up the street for a morning snack.

And they're wondering, all along this west side, what it feels like over on the other side of town, over at Sparrows Point, over where there's talk of laying off 800 employees who are just a part of maybe 2,000 workers who could feel the ax at the financially strapped Bethlehem Steel Corp.

What we have here are two different employment histories, each facing a similar dilemma in the new American economy. On the east side, generations of people, most of them white, went off to the steel mills each morning. The jobs were handed down, from fathers to sons, like family heirlooms. The money was pretty good, and the security was a godsend, and for a long time it looked as if it would never change.

On the west side, it was never this way. There was no Daddy Warbucks employer such as big Beth Steel, no jobs handed down like legacies. It was patchwork employment, generations of people frozen out of the big corporations. Sometimes, it was strictly by race.

You can still see the traces of that culture. On Pennsylvania Avenue, there remains such an operation as Butch & Son Shoe Shine, and such a place as Andrews TV Repair and Roofing Co. And still a professionally printed sign outside the business: "If a man don't work, he cannot eat -- Minister Andrews."

The problem is, in the new economy, nobody knows how long anybody's going to be working. In the two months since the terrorist attacks, an economy already looking shaky has gotten worse. Sales are down. Businesses have responded by cutting employees' hours -- or laying them off.

In September, 213,000 people across the country lost jobs. Last month, 415,000 jobs were eliminated. It's the biggest one-month drop since 1980.

On Thursday, economic development people from the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce met to talk about the new economy. They agreed on these things: Unemployment is up. Hotels have too many vacancies. Office buildings have too many vacancies (in Howard County, they're bracing for a 14 percent vacancy rate by year's end).

And in eastern Baltimore County last week, we had a team of architects announce the grandest plans for the rejuvenation of Dundalk and its 64 miles of undeveloped waterfront, currently languishing behind chain-link fences and railroad tracks. The architects made it sound like the second coming of James Rouse. They made it sound like a bright tomorrow linked to images of a proud industrial yesteryear, when Big Steel was king. They invoked images of pleasure boaters everywhere.

This poses a question: Who buys a pleasure boat when he doesn't know if he'll have money in his pocket tomorrow?

All of which brings us not only to those scratching out a living along the places such as Pennsylvania Avenue, or clinging to jobs at Beth Steel -- but to Washington's plans to dig us out of such mess in the new wartime reality.

With the economy stumbling, everybody agrees that money has to be spread around. In Washington, this is known as a "stimulus package." But who's getting stimulated, and who's getting nailed?

The House has voted for $140 billion in tax cuts for the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations. IBM and Ford and General Motors would make out like bandits. The richest 1 percent of the nation's richest individuals would get bountiful tax breaks, averaging about $30,000 next year alone. It's the kind of numbers mentioned during the last presidential campaign, which seemed to slip past everybody.

And now those numbers are being justified in patriotic terms. With the country at war, and everybody nervous about money and investments, let's spread some loot around. The problem is, the bottom three-quarters of the country would get almost nothing in the current "stimulus package."

And who's included in that struggling three-quarters? It's folks wondering about their jobs in the places such as Bethlehem Steel. Or waiting for the bus on chilly Pennsylvania Avenue. Or finding themselves among the 415,000 laid off across the country last month.

Or it's those who find themselves called heroes in the new America: Those cops, and those firefighters, and those postal workers who are glorified when it's politically convenient -- and passed over when it's time to spread the money around.

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