Bush deals another blow to the middle

March 14, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - President Bush didn't campaign on a promise to make it harder for average Americans to regain their financial footing after filing for bankruptcy. Even if he had, he probably would have been re-elected anyway.

Most Americans haven't noticed the president's relentless assault on programs and policies that protect the middle class against the caprice of the marketplace. If average Americans are living with a higher degree of financial anxiety, they blame outsourcing or high taxes or illegal Mexican immigrants. They haven't recognized that the Republicans have middle America in their crosshairs and that President Bush has given the order to fire.

The war on working- and middle-class America continued apace last week when a piece of legislation favored by bankers and credit card companies - and pushed by the president - gained steam in the Senate. The new bankruptcy bill would make it harder for middle-income individuals to file under Chapter 7, which usually allows some debt-forgiveness. Under the new law, individuals (with very few exceptions) have to keep working to pay off their debts, even if it takes several years.

Financial industry lobbyists claim they are only going after deadbeats who can afford to pay, but the research suggests otherwise. A few deadbeats may indeed file for bankruptcy to get out of paying for cars or big-screen TVs they knew they couldn't afford. But the vast majority, experts say, have been forced into substantial debt by some unforeseen personal catastrophe - death of the major breadwinner, job loss or medical crisis, for example.

Meanwhile, the rich will not be held to the same standard. They are free to be deadbeats. Senators defeated an amendment to the bill that would have closed loopholes allowing the wealthy to hold onto their mansions and other assets when they file for bankruptcy. They also turned back an amendment that would prevent corrupt companies, such as Enron, from sheltering assets that ought to go to former employees. But the Senate wouldn't accept an amendment that would have allowed the not-rich elderly to keep their houses if they go bankrupt.

Years from now, sociologists and political scientists will explain how Republicans persuaded so many voters to act against their own economic interests. Even as the GOP heaps more and more benefits on the wealthy and big business - tax breaks, so-called tort reform, anti-union policies - and strips them from average workers, the party continues to get much of its support from those same workers.

It's a mystery.

Perhaps it can be partly explained by the virtue of self-reliance, an ethic embedded in the American psyche that is often associated with conservatives. But a sense of invulnerability has also made it easier for the GOP to carry out this assault on average Americans: Most people don't think they'll be the victims of a financial crisis until the crisis befalls them.

The rewrite of the bankruptcy laws comes after a series of other developments that have frayed the safety net for average families. Even as job security declines, unemployment compensation has been reduced. Guaranteed pensions are disappearing, as is employer-provided health insurance. While wealthy Americans are coddled, working Americans are being subjected to the whims of a rapacious capitalism.

But Mr. Bush didn't say that during the last campaign. Instead, he talked about an "ownership society."

He neglected to explain that most of the owning would be done by the very rich.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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