Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Barely Staying Afloat

The New York Times
Barely Staying Afloat

President Bush's advisers say that the administration should receive more credit for the state of the economy, which, over all, is growing at a strong clip. But voters don't base their opinions on aggregate statistics. They react to their own paychecks and benefits, weighed against their fixed costs, like housing, health care and gasoline. For all but the wealthiest Americans, the latter are rapidly outpacing the former.

In a time of plenty, more American workers are in danger of slipping into outright poverty. As Erik Eckholm reported this week in The Times, about 37 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2004: $19,157 a year for a family of four. An additional 54 million lived between the poverty line and double the poverty line: $38,314 for a family of that size. They are the "near poor," and they generally receive little attention. But they are often one injury or layoff away from slipping into poverty themselves.

If the "near poor" feel insecure, they have good reason to. A group of academics found that during the 1980's, 13 percent of Americans in their 40's spent a year or more below the poverty line. In the 1990's, that percentage nearly tripled, reaching 36 percent. While workers once believed that pensions would provide for them in their old age, now they fret over underfunded 401(k) accounts. Houses are supposed to provide stability, but those with adjustable-rate mortgages are watching their payments rise, and some fear losing their homes.

The issue here is not handouts; it's about buffering against the shocks inherent in a fast-paced global economy. Perhaps one of the reasons President Bush is generally regarded as such a poor economic steward is that his administration has done little to make the most vulnerable members of the working class believe that any of the good news is directed at them.