Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Slumping incomes

Editorial writer for The Leader

Another day, another depressing economic report. Now it is the U. S. Census Bureau reporting on its 2005 household survey, which showed median family incomes slumping since the turn of the century, in Arkansas a whopping 7.2 percent over the five years.

Summoning Karl Rove! Can the White House spinmasters, who put such a beautiful countenance on everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the monthly unemployment report, not work their magic on the statisticians at the government bureaus that churn out all the economic reports?

Sure, it would be dishonest for the number crunchers to put a pretty face on the gloomy products of their studies, but think what it would do for the hapless American psyche. Happy talk from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t work anymore, but it might if it came from the career statisticians with green eyeshades.

The latest census figures could be worse. The poverty rate did not actually climb last year, median family incomes adjusted for inflation did better than the previous year, and the percentage of families without health insurance climbed no greater rate than it had been climbing since 2000.

Arkansas’ figures naturally were worse than most states’. The median household income for Arkansans in 2005 was $34,999, which was better than only Mississippi and West Virginia, for generations our familiar doormats in these rankings. Our poverty rate, 17.2 percent, ranked us seventh in the country.
Actually, the figures deceive just a little. The income figures do not include government benefits: the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, all programs in which Arkansans participate in considerably larger numbers than other states simply because we are poorer.

In disposable family income, which includes those payments, we may be sure that we fare a little better against the rest of the country as a whole. But that is little comfort unless you are one of those who happen to benefit. This comes after a period in which the economy actually grew, federal taxes in corporations and the investor class fell sharply, wealth accumulated bountifully, corporate profits set records and worker productivity increased. The trouble was that it did not trickle down to working families. David Betson, a University of Notre Dame economist, said it for the average family:
“We keep saying, ‘you’ll get yours in the future.’ At some point, that future is supposed to arrive.”

Even better than a Marxist-style re-education of the government statisticians would be an honest re-examination of national fiscal, monetary and social policies. That would include new tax policies directed at middle-income people, a real effort to use government leverage to expand healthcare coverage for working families, a candid re-evaluation of global trade strategies, perhaps a modern minimum wage law, a realistic strategy for leaving Iraq and pacifying the Middle East diplomatically, balancing the federal budget again and, maybe most important, development of an energy strategy that ends our total reliance on oil.

President Bush mentioned the last in his Labor Day message but the words seemed futile and unconvincing. When the country is in doldrums, elections, even the midterm variety, have a way of sending it in fresh directions — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but usually different. With one hand on the pocketbook, we count the days until this one passes and hope that providence shines upon us.