fresh voices from the front lines of change







Bachmann is gone. Perry was out, then back in, and is filing briefs in Virginia. Having tumbled from front-runner to fourth place, Newt stormed out of Iowa, heading for New Hampshire to prepare for the next round. After "winning" the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney is now stuck in that awkward phase otherwise known as the rest of the campaign. That leaves Google's favorite candidate, Rick Santorum, to bring the crazy.

And, in the final lap of the Iowa caucuses, boy did he bring it. Twice, in fact. Santorum's statements about "black people" on welfare, and how "break-down of the family" caused the economic crisis, suggest that the Republican presidential race will stay firmly rooted in unreality when it comes to America's "family un-friendly " economy.

First, Santorum told a gathering of Iowa voters that he doesn't want to "make black people's lives better by giving them someone else's money," implying that majority of welfare recipients are African American. (Maybe he got the idea from Newt Gingrich.)

Yes, he said it. No, it's not true — not in Iowa or the rest of the country.

The quote was captured by CBS News cameras. Santorum accused President Barack Obama of wanting more people to be on welfare, so they would be more dependent on the government. It wasn't clear why he singled out black Americans, as there was only one African-American in the room as he spoke. And Iowa's black population is about 2.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Santorum also overlooked the fact that the majority of welfare recipients are not black, and the majority of black people's lives are not "made better" via welfare.

African-Americans do suffer higher than average rates of poverty and unemployment, however, though they continue to collect less than a quarter of total "welfare" benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called "food stamps,") and housing assistance. Whites receive 34 percent of those benefits, African-Americans 22 percent, and Hispanics 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In his speech celebrating his strong finish in Iowa, Santorum turned to another rhetorical favorite among conservatives: blaming the economic crisis on the "breakdown of the family."

Mr. Santorum used his speech on Tuesday night, a modified version of the one he has been giving to voters in all 99 counties across Iowa over the last several months, to cast the race as a struggle to allow good to prevail. And he portrayed President Obama as on the opposite side of that fight.

His supporters, he said, “are the same people who President Obama talked about clinging to their guns and their bibles. Thank God they do.”

“They share our values about faith and family,” he said. “They understand that when the family breaks down, the economy struggles. They understand that when families aren’t there to instill values into their children and to their neighbors as little league coaches, as good neighbors, as fathers and mothers being part of the community, that the neighborhood is not safe. And they are not free.”

This is a big hit with the tea party.

Another participant, Bob Vander Plaats of the Tea Party National Convention, saw a link between homosexuality and the debt. “When you start going away from core value issues, the ripple effect leads right to economic issues,” he explained.

The problem is, Santorum has it backwards. It's not the "break-down of the family" that caused the economic crisis. It's the economic crisis — caused by a financial sector and the conservatism that allowed it — that's leading to the break-down of millions of American families. When the economy breaks down, American families struggle. Not vice versa.

Back in 2008, CAF published a report, "The Stress Test: A State-by-State Assessment of America's Economic Health and a Prescription for Change," that showed "trouble across the board" — flat wages, rising costs, unemployment, and more people living without health insurance — contributing to a general level of stress in "this historically optimistic country."

In four years, that stress has worsened, due to a family un-friendly economy in which one in eight families has at least one unemployed person — the highest proportion since the Department of Labor started keeping track. (A year ago, one in nine families had at least one unemployed person.) Those who do find jobs face big pay cuts, as most of the job growth is at the low end of the pay scale. Those who are lucky enough to have jobs are working harder and getting paid less.

According to the Social Security Data, half of Americans make near poverty wages. Many of those who haven't been knocked out of the middle class by unemployment, are living just this side of poverty. They've become the working poor, whose numbers grew by nearly a quarter of a million between 2008 and 2009.

What the Working Poor Families Project report really drives home is that the distance between America's invisible economic "other" and those of who think we are still comfortably middle class isn't all that great. We don't have to go "undercover" or even go to the library to find them. We just have to open our eyes. As the report states, the people whose story it details are not invisible. They're not even hard to find. We see them just about every day as they are "working the cash registers, keeping our homes and businesses clean, preparing our food, and helping care for our children and elderly relatives. during these grave economic times."

If the unemployed have been vilified by our policymakers, the working poor have been ignored. But they haven't fared any better. Neither will many of us who think we are comfortably middle class now, when we join the numbers as the economic crisis grinds on, and our politicians declare that "tough times call for tough decisions," only to make decisions that are ultimately toughest on those already having the toughest time.

The result is a set of economic realities — the high cost of low wages — that put families under a great deal of stress.

The underlying factors remain the same. At the time, the GOP had the minimum wage in its cross-hairs, but middle- and working-class Americans were already taking a pay cut in the form of unpaid furloughs and reduced working hours. The decades preceding the 2008 economic crisis saw working-class wages stagnate while the incomes rose for the wealthiest. The stagnation and decline in middle- and working-class wages paralleled the decline of organized labor. Increased productivity, added to the mix, means that Americans who still have jobs are working harder for less. Fewer of them are quitting their jobs, even if they're dissatisfied with their jobs cause And in a "no-quit economy," it's pretty much true.

The past few years have born more evidence that a American workers, already weakened by decades, are bearing the brunt of the recession.

Those economic stresses lead to problems that would push any family to the breaking point.

Not only will millions of Americans live in constant fear of where their next job will come from and what happens if there isn't one, but for those same Americans the flip side of desperation will be the hopelessness of knowing that "moving on up" is nearly impossible. Overworked, underpaid, ignored, and increasingly divorced from the economy, some will lose their place in the world, and struggle to maintain or re-establish identity.

We have been surrounded by the results so long that — except in cases like the Tucson shooting — we can easily miss them, because they are becoming our "new normal," of "anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments."

None of this happened overnight, nor did it occur in a vacuum. It played out over decades, and against a backdrop of increasing inequality that Nicholas Kristof cited as cause of what he called a "melancholy of the soul" that results in "high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease."

That "melancholy of the soul" was a reality for millions of Americans even before the current economic crisis began. For most of the previous decade, the kindling piled up around us, as economic inequality worsened.

That stress is further heightened as millions of American families face an economy in which 80% of us own just 7% of America's wealth, and realize what Harold Meyerson summed up recently: for millions of us, America is no longer the land of opportunity.

The best way to measure a nation’s merit-based status is to look at its intergenerational economic mobility: Do children move up and down the economic ladder based on their own abilities, or does their economic standing simply replicate their parents’? Sadly, as the American middle class has thinned out over recent decades, the idea of America as the land of opportunity has become a farce. As a paper by Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution has shown, sons’ earnings approximate those of their fathers about three times more frequently in the United States than they do in Denmark, Norway and Finland, and about 11 / 2 times more frequently than they do in Germany. The European social democracies — where taxes, entitlements and the rate of unionization greatly exceed America’s — are demonstrably more merit-based than the United States.

...Romney and his Bain Capital buddies may view their wealth as the just rewards endemic to successful people in a merit-based society. But why are so few Americans sharing in those rewards today while so many Americans shared in them 40 years ago? Are most Americans no longer meritorious? Or has our country ceased to reward any but the rich and powerful?

Santorum had it backwards. It's not the "break-down of the family" that caused the economic crisis. It's the economic crisis that's breaking millions of our families. And conservatives like Santorum — who want to cut wages, cut employment, and cut programs that keep Americans out of poverty — will ultimately break our economy. And break more of our families along with it.

That's the danger for working- and middle-class Americans. The danger for conservatives is that American families who know these economic realities only too well may have little use for candidates or parties whose policies and politics have no basis in economic reality.

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