by Joe Shea
April 12, 2012
TWO WHITE GUYS IN SUITS? NOT FOR THIS AMERICA
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Aug. 7, 2012 -- It has receded so far into the mists of history that it almost seems like it never happened.
But it did.
Between 1947 and 1970, every income group in the United States saw economic advancement.
The combination of high taxes on the wealthy - 91 percent in the 1950s, and 70 percent in the 1960s - and social and economic policies designed to promote full employment and fair wages for most workers resulted in a period when nearly every American family had a shot at a better life.
Our recent history tells a different story. Since the early 1980s, families in the top 20 percent of income continued to see steady income gains, whiles families in the lower income brackets saw stagnant and/or falling incomes.
Why? Just look at the policy shifts that began in the Reagan years.
The labor movement, which was strong in the 1950s and 1960s and ensured higher wages and benefits for all workers, regardless of union membership, was gradually weakened as the government stopped enforcing labor laws.
Federal taxes on the biggest earners dropped sharply - today, it's down to just 35 percent for income and just 15 percent for capital gains - while Social Security payroll taxes were raised for the lower-income brackets.
Economic policy shifted from full employment to fighting inflation while, at the same time, the minimum wage no longer kept pace with the rising cost of food, shelter, and energy. If it did, the federal minimum wage would be around $11 an hour today, instead of the current $7.25.
Five years after the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble touched off a global financial-market meltdown, our nation is seeing the highest levels of poverty since the government began tracking these figures in 1959.
According to a recent analysis by The Associated Press, the current poverty level in the United States is nearly 16 percent - more than 47 million Americans are now living in poverty. This is the predictable result of the lethal combination of persistent high unemployment combined with cuts in social welfare spending. Poverty can be found from the cities, to the suburbs, to rural America.
The good news is that the poverty rate would be double what it is now if not for programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid.
The bad news is that all of these programs are targeted for deep cuts by Republicans and conservative Democrats who are more worried about the deficit than about seeing 15 percent of America living in poverty.
The official poverty level of $22,314 for a family of four, or $11,139 for an individual, doesn't go far. And the chances for upward mobility are slim. According to the Census Bureau, half the jobs in the United States pay less than $34,000 per year, and a quarter of the jobs pay less than $23,000 per year.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1932, "Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws - sacred, inviolable, unchangeable - cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings."
Using Roosevelt's logic, it is blindingly obvious that if we want to reduce the rate of poverty, we need to raise the minimum wage, improve social welfare programs, embark on a massive public works program to rebuild our nation's tattered infrastructure and raise tax rates to where they were in the 1950s so that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.
Using the power of government at a time when the so-called Invisible Hand of the marketplace has failed is just plain good common sense. But few are pushing this solution in Washington, and the lobbyists and interest groups that represent the richest 1 percent of America are working hard to make sure that, at minimum, the status quo remains.
But for some, even maintaining the status quo is not good enough.
We see the berserkers in the Republican Party that believe the poor should be taxed more, the rich should be taxed less, and that Social Security, Medicare, and every other social welfare program should be slashed to pay for this reverse Robin Hood scheme. Normally, they would be written off as the fringe. Unfortunately, that is now mainstream conservative thinking.
It is often said that the poor have no lobbyists in Washington, D.C. It is sad, but very true. The politicians talk only of the middle class, and pretend that the tens of millions of Americans who work full-time jobs yet can't afford the basics of life don't exist. And the middle class identifies more with the people at the top than the people at the bottom, not realizing that they are but a pink slip or a major illness away from joining the ranks of the poor.
What will it take to get Americans to stop voting against their economic interests, and support policies that bring us back to the now-vanished era of shared prosperity for all?
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.