FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Downward Mobility

While accomplishing little else of substance in this election year, the House of Representatives voted in June, for the eighth consecutive year, to award all members of Congress cost-of-living increases in their annual salaries amounting to a hefty $168,500, not including the many perks they enjoy.

Washington’s policymakers have not, however, managed to muster a similar bipartisan resolve to raise the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, unchanged since 1997, leaving a family of three $6,000 below the federal poverty line-the lowest proportion of the median annual wage since the years immediately following World War Two.

The human toll of this heartless government policy was illustrated on this Labor Day weekend, when six Chicago siblings, aged three to fourteen, perished in an apartment fire. The source of the fire proved to be the candles this poor family was using for light because they had been without electricity since May.

The mother escaped with one child, and a neighbor was able to rescue another. But more children appeared at a window screaming, “Help! We’re burning!” to helpless bystanders, and arriving firefighters soon found the six dead siblings huddled together in the room where the candle burned.

Downward mobility

This image should shatter media depictions of the U.S. as a predominantly “consumer society.” Those in upper income levels have certainly engaged in a spending spree over the last several years. But those in the lower echelons have been struggling to survive. Class stratification has not been this pronounced since the late 1920s.

Since 1997, the last year in which the minimum wage rose, gasoline prices have risen by 140 percent, and home heating oil by 120 percent. Since 2000, health care premiums have gone up by 73 percent.

But all workers’ wages have been falling in the current economic expansion-declining roughly $2,000 per household since 2000. This marks the first recovery since World War Two that has failed to offer a sustained rise in workers’ wages.

In the first quarter of 2006, wages and salaries accounted for only 45 percent of gross domestic product, falling from nearly 50 percent in the first quarter of 2001 and a record 53.6 percent in the first quarter of 1970, according to the Commerce Department.

New York Times reporters Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt commented on August 28, “[W]ages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as ‘the golden era of profitability.'”

Between 2000 and 2005, the real median income of households headed by persons under the age of 65 fell by 5.4 percent, paralleling the nosedive in incomes during the Reagan era. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in August that wages and salaries fell by 1.8% for men and 1.3% for women last year alone.

Roughly one-fourth of all low-income families with a full-time worker has been unable to pay the rent or mortgage at least once during the past year, and the same number report being unable to put enough food on their families’ tables.

In 2005, the number of Americans without health insurance increased for the fifth straight year. The number of uninsured Americans rose to 46.6 million in 2005, to 15.9 percent from 14.2 percent in 2000.

Economists at Goldman Sachs accurately noted, “The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.”

“There are two economies out there,” political analyst Charles Cook recently described. “One has been just white hot, going great guns. Those are the people who have benefited from globalization, technology, greater productivity and higher corporate earnings.

“And then there’s the working stiffs,” he added, who “just don’t feel like they’re getting ahead despite the fact that they’re working very hard. And there are a lot more people in that group than the other group.”

The bipartisan project

But gaping class inequality cannot be blamed on the Bush administration alone, for this has been a bipartisan project, widening virtually without interruption since the mid-1970s, including during the Clinton-era boom.

As Ezra Klein noted in February’s American Prospect, “while electoral defeats help explain why Democrats couldn’t implement a comprehensive antipoverty strategy, they don’t account for why they couldn’t propose one. It’s not just that Democrats couldn’t bring policies onto the Senate floor. In this case, the backstage was empty too. The Democratic National Committee’s issues page never mentions the word ‘poverty.’ Nor does Harry Reid’s, Nancy Pelosi’s, the House Democratic Caucus, nor the Senate Democratic Caucus. Not a single one identifies poverty as an issue the Democratic Party cares to solve.”

Indeed, Democratic President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996, dismantling 60 years of New Deal legislation that obliged the government to assist the poor. It turns out no government agency bothered to follow the subsequent (mis)fortunes of the poorest Americans suddenly released from their “cycle of dependency.”

More than likely, former welfare families make up a substantial proportion of the 43 percent of poor American households now surviving on less than half the official poverty level in 2005-just $7,800 for a family of three.

Workers have not shared in the current economic prosperity that has sent corporate profits soaring in recent years. When the economy flat-lines in the coming months as the housing bubble bursts, the silent depression experienced by working families might finally enter the mainstream of public discourse. And the “golden era of profitability” should meet the same fate as the “Roaring Twenties”-in an explosion of class struggle-to finally begin to reverse the balance of class forces.

SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: sharon@internationalsocialist.org

 

 

 

More articles by:
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh
T.J. Coles
Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail