Bush stubbornly blind to growing income gap

May 08, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- When President George H. W. Bush marveled at a supermarket checkout scanner in 1992, his surprise became a symbol of the elitism that separated him from the average voter, who was quite familiar with that mundane bit of technology. With the nation mired in a recession of which Mr. Bush seemed blithely ignorant, it's no wonder he was defeated by Bill Clinton.

A similar disconnect separates his son from a substantial portion of the American electorate, whose earnings are stuck in place, despite rising health care and energy costs. That's why the current President Bush is a little puzzled, too. He can't understand why his poll numbers are so low despite what he proclaims is a booming economy.

Sure, he understands that voters are displeased with conditions in Iraq and the price of gasoline. But the president just can't believe that Americans are so unhappy given the general prosperity that he sees abroad in the land. The most recent Gallup poll, taken late last month, shows that only 34 percent of Americans approve of the president's handling of the economy.

Doesn't everyone have a growing stock portfolio? Didn't everybody buy Google stock early? Aren't all taxpayers swimming in cash because of Mr. Bush's generous tax cuts?

Well, no.

None of the president's men (or women) regularly associates with working families whose incomes hover below $50,000 a year, whose children aren't vying to get into Harvard, Stanford or Yale, who don't even have a 401(k). Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't go quail hunting with men whose hunting gear came from Wal-Mart and who head to Huddle House to eat after a successful day flushing birds out of the bush instead of a pen.

While the unemployment rate has remained a respectable 5 percent or so, many workers are stranded in jobs that don't pay well and that offer little or no health insurance coverage. If you were once an automotive worker making $60,000 a year, your current job at Wal-Mart may keep you out of unemployment lines but it hardly makes you feel secure.

If the textile plant where you once worked shut down - moving its operations to China - you may have managed to patch together two part-time jobs to cover your lost income. You're not counted among the unemployed, but you're working longer hours for the same pay.

Then there are the families who are wiped out by a catastrophic illness or injury - a child's leukemia, a father's fall from a ladder. Even a health insurance policy that pays 70 percent of hospital costs can leave a working family struggling to pay the rest if the bill is big enough. Drug costs for chronic illnesses can also drain the finances of average families.

Neither the president nor his economic advisers seem to see those ugly realities beneath the relatively good unemployment numbers. (For that matter, neither do highly paid journalists in the Washington-New York corridor. On political commentary shows, they, too, often express surprise that Americans are not more optimistic about the economy.) The income gap keeps growing, and Mr. Bush and his team have lost sight of the have-lesses.

Before you fire off an e-mail screed charging me with invoking "class warfare," consider this: A huge gap between the affluent and everybody else creates social instability and political discontent.

Look at South America. In many countries, globalization and market-driven economic policies have not lived up to the promise of creating a broad new middle class but instead have exacerbated the historic chasm between the affluent and the poor. That's why Hugo Chavez is so popular among the impoverished in Venezuela, and Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, has seized privately controlled gas and oil reserves. Their populism appeals to those stuck at the bottom who believe the rich have unfairly stacked the deck.

Since the civil rights movement ended the last vestiges of official inequality, this country has enjoyed civic harmony largely because of the broad economic opportunities offered to all. But the loss of manufacturing jobs has closed off the route to the middle class for many Americans, especially those without post-secondary degrees.

It's not Mr. Bush's fault that General Motors has lost its competitive edge or that China manufactures TVs and toys so cheaply. But he should have noticed by now that globalization has left a lot of hardworking Americans stranded on the wrong side of the income gap. If he could see across that gulf, perhaps he would start thinking about how to rescue his countrymen, and his country.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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