The wages of luck in a bad economy

October 02, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- This presidential campaign season is beginning to look like something that Yogi Berra might call "deja vu all over again."

Imagine, for example, a president named Bush who gains sky-high approval ratings from a war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, only to face shrinking popularity amid a sluggish economy back home.

Yes, that was what happened with Bill Clinton's unexpected victory over the elder President Bush in 1992. The elder Mr. Bush's problem, as it turned out, was not so much the economy as much as it was the voting public's perceptions of the economy. Even as the economy was starting to turn around in early 1992, Mr. Bush's pollster Robert Teeter warned that there were storm clouds on the horizon: a growing disapproval with the direction in which the country was headed.

Recent polls regarding the younger Mr. Bush show renewed public anxiety about this country's direction. And recent headlines about a rise in poverty and in the numbers of the uninsured are not helping matters.

For the second year in a row, the number of Americans living in poverty has gone up. Almost 1.7 million fell into poverty last year, the Census Bureau reports, which pushed the official poverty rate up to 12.1 percent from 11.7 percent in 2001. The new total of 34.6 million includes 12.1 million children.

"What we are seeing is a loss of manufacturing jobs and an increase in service-sector jobs that pay less than $8.77," says Beth Shulman, a Washington author, lawyer and lecturer on labor issues. That $8.77-per-hour figure is the level where the federal minimum wage would be, had it continued to keep up with inflation, Ms. Shulman says.

In her new book, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families (New Press), Ms. Shulman says she would like to see a higher minimum wage. She also calls for health care and family-leave time for all workers.

That makes Ms. Shulman sound like a liberal throwback in today's conservative Washington. But, in the real world outside Washington, she points out, more than 30 million (or one in four) American workers now work in jobs that pay poverty wages, provide few or no benefits and allow little flexibility in time for quality child care. As our economy shifts away from manufacturing jobs over the long haul, their numbers are going up. What once were seen as issues of the poor, Ms. Shulman says, are becoming issues for the middle class.

Health care is one such issue. The Census Bureau this week reported that 43.6 million Americans were uninsured in 2002, a jump of 2.4 million from the previous year. That's a powerful symbol of lost jobs, lost overtime, lost health care, lost pensions and a lost sense of well-being in the current economy.

As income assistance to the working poor, I think the Earned Income Tax Credit does a better job of targeting those who need it most: low-income working parents, many of whom recently left welfare rolls. A single mother working at minimum wage, for example, will rise above the government's poverty level in spending power with the help of the tax credit and food stamps.

As Robert E. Rector, a welfare policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, put it, "We, as a nation, decided about 10 years ago that the EITC was a better mechanism than the minimum wage or (job) training programs" for targeting assistance to low-income working parents who have children to support.

My colleagues on The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page helped set the tone for that "starve the beast" side in robust in-your-face editorials Nov. 20 and Jan. 20 that defended the favoritism that Mr. Bush's tax cuts showed for upPer-income taxpayers.

You should not feel sorry for the "non-taxpaying class" of low-income workers, the Journal said, calling them "lucky duckies." "They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standards deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education."

These "lucky duckies," let us remember, are the folks who park cars, wait tables, clean offices, pick up trash and care for grandma or grandpa in nursing homes. With luck like that, they don't need misfortune. The Earned Income Tax Credit is designed not to make them rich, but to help them stay out of poverty and off welfare.

There are two kinds of people in this world, my father used to say: the movers and shakers and those who get moved and shaken. The latter group, the first to be shaken by hard times, doesn't get heard much until they turn out and vote. The elder Mr. Bush never quite grasped that message. This junior Mr. Bush still has a chance to learn from his father's mistakes.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. He can be reached at

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