Tuesday, September 19
In this election year, the war in Iraq has overshadowed everything. But if the war is topic A, not far behind is the plight of the middle class in America. Quite simply, working families are hurting.

In his new book, "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class," author and liberal talk radio host Thom Hartmann makes a compelling case for what the average person in America is up against.

* The inflation-adjusted average annual pay for CEOs went up from $7,773,000 in 2002 to $9,600,000 in 2004. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted median annual household income went down from $46,058 in 2000 to $44,389 in 2004.

* From 2001 to 2005, the United States lost 2,818,000 manufacturing jobs.

* Two decades ago, 91 percent of all employers offered traditional pensions. Today, only 67 percent do.

* Only 60 percent of employers offer health insurance, and those who have health insurance are today paying 36 percent more for out-of-pocket costs than they did five years ago.

* More than 60 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6 are in the workforce.

* Thirty million Americans -- one in four workers -- make less than $9 an hour or $17,280 a year. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $19,307. If the head of that family worked for the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, or $9,888 a year, he or she would have to work two, 40-hour week jobs to stay above the poverty level.


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While workers are struggling, a privileged few are doing great.

According to the Census Bureau, there are now 7.4 million Americans who are millionaires and, over the past decade, the number of billionaires has more than tripled to 341. The richest 20 percent of Americans today control 50.4 percent of the wealth. Back in 1980, it was 33 percent.

How did this happen? It was a deliberate policy decision, says Hartmann. Since the conservative wing of the Republican Party rose to power with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rules have been rewritten to favor corporations and CEOs over workers.

President Reagan embraced the now-discredited theory of trickle-down economics, which said that if you cut taxes on the wealthy, it will stimulate economic growth and some money will eventually find its way into workers' pockets. What happened was that a huge portion of the nation's wealth was transferred to the wealthy and the middle class has been squeezed almost to oblivion.

It wasn't always this way. In Hartmann's view, the founding fathers didn't fight a bloody war for independence from Britain to create a country only for wealthy property holders.

"Our founders believed that every (man) willing to work for his living should be able to earn enough to own his own house and support himself and his family," writes Hartmann. "That's what it means to be middle class and part of why (Thomas) Jefferson put 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' into the Declaration of Independence."

It's also why the founders put, in the preamble of the Constitution, that one purpose of government is to "promote the general welfare."

The one president who came closest to those words was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the country was down and out during the Great Depression, it was Roosevelt who recognized, in the words of Hartmann "that government can and must 'promote the general welfare,' because only government can create the conditions that make a middle class possible."

Roosevelt's New Deal gave us fair labor laws, the minimum wage, Social Security and regulation of the markets to tame the natural excesses of capitalism. The result was what Hartmann calls "the golden age of the American middle class," roughly between 1940 and 1980, when more Americans than ever before got a fair slice of the economic pie.

That social contract -- play by the rules, work hard and you will be rewarded -- was gradually whittled away by the Reagan conservatives. "Let the markets decide" was their mantra for everything.

The efforts that made a middle class possible -- collective bargaining and unionization, access to education, affordable housing and health care, a secure pension upon retirement -- were seen as obstacles to profitability by a new class of businessmen who took America's economy back to the post-Civil War "Gilded Age" of monopolists and robber barons.

Now, our nation is at a crossroads. The middle class is facing extinction, and it is impossible to have a functioning, healthy democracy without a healthy, prosperous middle class participating in the economic and political life of the nation.

So what should be done? Some of Hartmann's suggestions include a national single-payer health insurance system based on Medicare, preservation of Social Security in its current form, a return to progressive taxation and the pre-Reagan-era top rates of 70 percent for individuals and 35 percent for corporations to fund Social Security and reinvest in public projects, changing labor law to make it easier to organize workplaces, a higher minimum wage that is truly a living wage and a national energy program that puts the needs of the people and the planet ahead of the oil companies.

It is an ambitious agenda, one that neither Republicans nor most Democrats will embrace. But it is an agenda that is absolutely essential to preserve our middle class and, in the process, preserve our democracy.