The Kitchen-Table State of the Union
With the stock market surging and the economy growing, George W. Bush has begun touting the success of his tax cuts. In his State of the Union address on January 20, Bush will no doubt argue that we're on the right track and need to stay the course. But for most Americans the rosy statistics don't reflect their reality. When they talk at night after the kids have gone to bed, they worry that things are getting worse, not better. And in case after case, the President's policies are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Consider the State of the Union as it looks not from the White House or Wall Street but from America's kitchen tables.
Jobs are scarce and increasingly insecure. The new jobs that laid-off workers are getting generally don't have the pay or benefits of the ones they lost. Despite the much-advertised economic recovery, Bush will have the worst jobs record of any President since the Great Depression. In addition to the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs, high-tech and service jobs are headed overseas too. Bush has not only pushed for more of the same trade accords that helped get us into this hole, but he has failed to address China's mercantilist trade and currency policies, which have led to a staggering $100 billion US trade deficit. Much of the corporate investment that came from the wealthy benefiting from Bush's tax cuts went abroad, not here. Bush's policies are generating more jobs in Shanghai than in Saginaw.
Wage growth is the slowest in forty years. Homelessness is up, and more working people are in poverty. But the Bush Administration not only effectively opposes any increase in the minimum wage, it pushed regulations that will strip millions of workers of overtime pay, despite the opposition of many Democrats and some Republicans in Congress.
Healthcare costs are soaring, with businesses forcing workers to pick up more of the tab or dropping coverage altogether. Americans now pay the highest prescription drug prices in the world. Yet Bush not only did nothing to bring the costs of HMOs and insurance companies under control, he pushed through a prescription drug bill that prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better price for seniors. To add insult to injury, the bill outlaws buying cheaper drugs from Canada. Bush turned a $400 billion benefit for the elderly into a $400 billion subsidy to the drug companies.
The largest number of children ever entered our public schools this past fall. But schools across the country are being forced to cut back, laying off teachers, doubling up classes, putting off needed construction. Bush not only broke his promise on funding his school reforms, but, with the states facing the worst fiscal crisis in fifty years, he also opposed state aid that would protect schools from debilitating cuts. Then he zeroed out funding for school construction in the federal budget.
Tuition at four-year public colleges is going up nearly 15 percent a year. Federal grants for deserving students haven't kept up. The maximum Pell grant now covers 39 percent of public college tuition, down from 84 percent in 1975-76. Students graduate with 35 percent more debt than a decade ago. More and more are priced out of four-year colleges altogether. Bush broke his campaign promise to raise the maximum grant; under his new budget, grant levels will fall even further behind costs.
Many older workers saw their retirement dreams shattered when the stock market collapsed. Only one in five employees in the private sector has a defined-benefit pension at work. And the Enron scandal showed how corporate executives were abusing worker savings accounts. But Bush now wants to privatize Social Security, which would almost certainly lead to cuts in benefits. And his post-Enron pension "reform" legislation would make it legal for corporations to provide pensions for the few on the top floor and reduce the number covered on the shop floor.
Parents sensibly worry about what their children are eating, as more of our food is imported and less of it is inspected. Food-borne diseases have caused some 228 million illnesses and more than 15,000 deaths since Bush took office. And now there's a mad cow threat. Yet Bush and the Republican Congress blocked legislation to impose stronger penalties for food-safety violations and opposed measures that would have made it easier to trace the source of contaminated meat.
More than 4.7 million workers were injured or became ill on the job in 2002. Violations of workplace safety laws have grown as companies seek to cut costs. Federal inspectors are unable to keep up. But Bush has tried every year to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, which currently allows for inspections of only 5 percent of workplaces.
Personal debt is at record heights, as are personal bankruptcies. Credit card companies continue to impose obscene interest and penalty charges, yet Bush and the GOP leadership in Congress blocked efforts to provide consumers with clear warning about credit card charges and pushed to make it easier to collect against families forced into bankruptcy.
Since 9/11, Americans can't help worrying about terrorist threats. Even here Bush has fallen short. The EPA reports that there are 123 plants where release of chemicals would threaten more than 1 million people. Yet after the oil and chemical lobby mobilized against it, Bush opposed legislation to create minimum standards for security and hazard reduction in such plants.
The list could go on, but the point is clear. Bush's boasting about his economic program may simply indicate that he is out of touch with the reality that most Americans face. But the reason his policies are making things worse is that they are designed to serve the wealthy and the corporate lobbies that pay for his party. And that means rewarding the few and leaving the many to pay the price.
This is beginning to sink in. With the capture of Saddam Hussein and the revival of economic growth, Bush's job-approval ratings have bounced back. But what pollsters call his "re-elect numbers"--the number of Americans who say they would vote to re-elect him--remain low. Americans are notoriously inattentive to national politics and sensibly cynical about politicians. But they know that although champagne corks may be popping in the boardrooms, there is little to celebrate around the kitchen table.