Living Standards Under Stress

Isaiah J. Poole

It does not take much to understand why a hard-core Republican district in Mississippi would elect a Democrat to the House of Representatives by a nine-point margin. Mississippi is a state under particularly serious economic stress, a point brought home in a report released this week by the Campaign for America’s Future.

“The Stress Test” shows in graphic detail the impact that seven years of conservative economic policies have had on working families. It explains why this week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that “nearly seven out of 10 Americans are worried about maintaining their standard of living.”

The most recent, and perhaps most dramatic, threat to standards of living has been in the form of higher gasoline prices, which have risen 33 cents a gallon just in the past month, according to The Post. But the erosion in living stands has been a long time coming and it comes from multiple sources, according to the Stress Test report.

Consider this: In Mississippi, since 2000 the average weekly wage has done up, in inflation-adjusted terms, $33 since 2000. But there are plenty of indications that Mississippi families have nonetheless fallen behind, even if you leave out the whopping 128 percent increase in gasoline prices during that period. The percentage of people without health insurance increased 63 percent since 2000, and the number of jobs with health coverage declined 12 percent. Seventy-four percent more people—it’s now almost one in 10—spend at least a quarter of their income for health care than was the case in 2000.

In Mississippi, the number of people who are below the poverty line is up 8 percent, bankruptcies are up 27 percent and home foreclosures are up 92 percent.

On a national level, “The Stress Test” reports:

The states experiencing the most economic difficulties are Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Maine and Tennessee. A cross‐section of middle America, these states are represented by both political parties and exhibit both industrial and rural characteristics. Michigan’s number one ranking in stress reveals America’s shrinking industrial base. It has high unemployment as well as the biggest decline per capita in both manufacturing jobs and construction jobs. North Carolina’s high ranking also stems from crumbling industry, which led to its having the fourth highest decrease in goods‐producing jobs and third highest decrease in manufacturing since 2000. North Carolinians are also plagued by health care woes. Thirteen percent fewer people in North Carolina got health care through their employers in 2006 than in 2000. Nine percent of the residents of North Carolina pay more than 25 percent of their income on health care. In Ohio, more than one in ten construction jobs has been lost since 2000. The cost of a year of state college is now up to 20 percent of a median Ohio family’s income.

It is no wonder conservative lawmakers this week are trying to sell “change,” as if it were someone else besides President George W. Bush in the White House and as if conservatives weren’t running the Congress like a military precision marching band until voters said “Enough!” in 2006. The Stress Test shows that real change will not come from more of the same, but from a radically different set of progressive economic policies. We need to focus on supporting the aspirations of working-class families, not the avarice of corporations. There is no better proof of that than the conditions on the ground in conservative strongholds like Mississippi—and in how voters are responding behind the voting-booth curtain.

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