What's Wealth

Poverty is wealth. Sickness is health. Bankruptcy is retirement security. These would be fitting slogans to describe the administration's economic plan, matching its rhetoric with the reality of what is happening to people. Robotically, maddeningly, every question about the economic crisis facing tens of millions of Americans is answered with the line "the economy is moving," which deliberately ignores the harsh economic times facing America. In part, the administration promises the people that recovery is near by citing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) statistics. But the focus on the quarterly growth statistics and the official unemployment numbers is an incredible Orwellian scam.

The GDP tells us that dollars are flowing somewhere but sheds little light on who is benefiting from the economic activity. For those making economic policy, real people are apparently an abstraction, no matter how many road shows the administration orchestrates using banners proclaiming, "JOBS," "GROWTH" and "Strengthening American's Economy." But, the economy is not some abstraction.

In thinking how we should judge how good the economy looks, here are some pieces that, when fit together, paint a grim picture of workers' real lives. It is, indeed, a startling notion that, in the richest country in the world, more than 34.6 million people (including 12.1 million children) live below what the government says is the "poverty line." But what about those who live above the "poverty line" of $18,244 for a family of four? How do a family of four earning the enormous sum of, say, $25,000 clothe, feed, house and educate themselves?

Which leads us to the official unemployment rate of 6.1 percent. That number does not tell us how many millions of people are employed in part-time jobs but who would gladly accept full-time work. While not counted in the official unemployment number, these are some of the very people who fall below the poverty line because their wages are so low. Nor does the official unemployment rate tell the story of the millions of workers who work 40 hours a week for minimum wage or low wages who manage to squeak above the official government poverty line, but do not have anything approaching a secure economic life.

Which leads us directly to the decline in manufacturing jobs, thanks in no small measure to the trade policies of the past decade. More than 2.5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since the current administration took office -- 56,000 disappeared in June alone. Those were good-paying jobs. The worst is yet to come -- the entire textile industry will likely be wiped out come 2005, unless current trade rules are changed. In a flash, 700,000 workers in rural and small-town America will be without jobs, the kinds of jobs that often offer the best employment option in their communities.

Which is also part of the reason that, in the richest country in the world, 43.6 million people do not have health insurance. It's a breathtaking number -- more than 15 percent of our families, friends and neighbors have no protection for themselves when they fall ill. Why? More employers are dumping health coverage for their workers.

Which brings us to the bankruptcy statistics. A record number of bankruptcies -- an estimated 1.7 million -- is forecast for 2003. Out of work, underpaid, underemployed and sick with no insurance, people are choking on a mountain of debt not eased one bit by the tax cut they received.

Ironically, from the standpoint of economic activity, a number of the dire circumstances faced by real people pump up the Gross Domestic Product statistic. Sick people with no insurance run up the costs of health care -- which is rung up as economic activity. As for debt, Consumer Federation of America found that in one year, credit card companies had mailed five billion solicitations -- nearly 50 per U.S. household -- trying to dole out $3 trillion in unused lines of credit. That's about $30,000 per household -- and, when expended to make ends meet, that credit card debt contributes to economic activity. Not to mention the legal activity generated by bankruptcies.

Indeed, the relative importance of the GDP number is another reflection of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Rich people love a rise in the GDP because it usually means they are making money. The press is almost always giddy over a quarterly rise in the GDP, but rarely looks at what that means for real people over the long term. Each time the press focuses on a short-term analysis of a dry government statistic, it has missed the long-term undermining of peoples' daily lives.

Jonathan Tasini is the national director of American Rights At Work.


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