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Labor Pains

September 06, 2004

Middle-class wages are stagnant, the ranks of workers with employer-provided health coverage are shrinking, the job-creation machine is missing more than hitting and poverty is on the rise. To top it off, the Congressional Budget Office last month confirmed that the Bush administration's $400 billion in tax cuts favored those traveling in staterooms over those jammed into steerage.

It's somehow fitting that a Bush campaign member recently put a new twist on Marie Antoinette when the staffer was overheard joking that unhappy American workers should find new jobs or go on Prozac. No argument here with the first half of that prescription. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is what this country is all about, even in a fragile economic recovery that's failing to create sufficient jobs. But pill-popping is a tad pricey for many workers trying to stay ahead of the monthly bills -- unless, of course, they head to Canada. But that's another story.

Today is an appropriate time to ponder the state of labor in the country, but do it before you start flipping burgers and uncapping cold ones because it's a subject that can lead to indigestion.

The Census Bureau recently reported that median family income was virtually flat last year after two years of noticeable declines, and that an additional 1.3 million Americans slipped into poverty. On Tuesday, the Conference Board's monthly survey showed consumer confidence headed south. And although the 144,000 new jobs created in August were welcome news, job creation continues to lag behind what would be expected this deep into an economic recovery.

Meanwhile, a growing parade of Americans goes without employee healthcare benefits, priced out as monthly contributions and co-payments soar.

The optimists at last week's Republican convention dismissed such dour statistics as old news that failed to capture the true strength of the economic recovery. Yet you have to look pretty hard to find good news for middle-class workers.

Here's a bone for the Bush administration: The number of Americans with some form of health coverage actually increased last year. But then, that's because of strong growth in demand for Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and other government safety nets. Not exactly "ownership," as the Republicans preached this past week in New York City.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan isn't lightening the mood for American workers with his predictions of serious financial troubles ahead in the Social Security and Medicare programs, raising fears that many will have to push back retirements or see their benefits restructured. Future generations, already burdened with the federal government's record deficits, can't be counted upon to pick up that tab.

Well, enough of all that -- it's a holiday, after all. You can worry about this stuff tomorrow. Or just ignore it entirely, like your political leaders.

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