The greatest economic injustice in America isn’t corporate malfeasance, anemic job growth or the outsourcing of jobs, as the mainstream media suggests. The biggest scandal is the highway robbery committed against hard-working families who can’t make ends meet despite playing by the rules. While the press has chronicled the crimes of Dennis Koslowski, Martha Stewart and Andrew Fastow, it consistently fails to describe the forces shutting workers out of the broad middle-class.
Upward mobility is one of our democracy’s great strengths. In George Bush’s America, however, opportunity is being steadily eroded. To understand this anti-worker economy, just begin with the minimum wage.
Currently, the federal minimum wage is a paltry $5.15 an hour. It has remained unchanged since 1997. In a family of three, the breadwinner earns $10,712 in annual income, which is almost $5,000 below the federal poverty level. When Washington State raised its minimum wage in 1998 to $7.16 an hour, many full-time workers with families were still living in poverty.
Republicans in Congress couldn’t care less about this crisis. Callous, imperious and anti-worker, the Republican Senate leadership recently refused to even vote on a modest minimum wage increase, which could have helped offset the hardships imposed by declining wages and record job losses. When it comes to the struggle to increase the minimum wage and deal with the crisis of poverty in the US, the Senate has essentially become a “non-functioning institution,” to quote Senator Edward Kennedy.
A second force driving this train are the glaring inequities in America’s tax system–injustices that have further eroded workers’ prospects. David Cay Johnston, who covers the tax system for the New York Times, has demonstrated that in recent decades, a growing portion of the tax burden has shifted to working- and middle-class families while the wealthiest Americans have paid fewer taxes.
Armed with lobbyists and campaign contributions, many corporations have successfully avoided paying virtually any federal income tax for years. From 1996 to 2000, 61 percent of businesses paid no federal income taxes whatsoever. Last year, business’s share of the federal tax burden dropped to 7.4 percent, down from a high of 32 percent in 1952. And, this week, we learned that under President Bush, the IRS has performed fewer corporate audits and undertaken fewer prosecutions of corporate tax evaders than ever before.
Meanwhile, the US is the only country on earth where wages are being driven down. Johnston says that for the bottom 80 percent of the income bracket, wages have either fallen or remained stagnant. The next ten percent has seen “infinitesimal growth in income”—while the top ten percent has become spectacularly rich. Americans are experiencing the slowest wage growth in 40 years.
The economy is shafting workers in subtler ways as well, as corporations slash benefits and cheat people out of every last dime. The Wall Street Journal reported that Lucent is cutting medical and life insurance benefits for its retirees. Wal-Mart, America’s largest employer, is facing legal action for allegedly cheating workers out of overtime pay. Some companies, according to a recent front-page New York Times‘ article, have even deleted hours from workers’ time sheets in order to maximize profits; such illegal doctoring is “far more prevalent than most Americans believe,” noted the Times.
Making matters even worse is the problem of spiraling personal debt with many Americans struggling to pay back school loans, maintain car payments and keep credit card bills at bay. In 2001 [the most recent year for which figures are available], seven out of every 1,000 adults declared personal bankruptcy, a share nearly twice as high as in the last business cycle peak in 1989, according to the Economic Policy Institute. As EPI says, “This rising debt is especially troubling in the midst of an ongoing labor market recession, when income is growing slowly at best.”
“Even the few new jobs [announced in last month’s Labor Department report] come with an asterisk,” Senator Kennedy said in a recent speech. “They pay an average of 8,000 dollars less than the jobs lost in the Bush economy,” and they frequently offer only part-time hours and few benefits.
The bottom line is that hard-working Americans face hostile economic forces arrayed against them–and the sign over the gateway to economic security now says: CLOSED FOR BUSINESS. Under President Bush’s economic stewardship, America’s middle-class is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But, as Willy Loman’s wife Linda tells her audience in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”