Squeezing middle-class lemons

This Labor Day, Washington's working families are being squeezed like the proverbial lemon. But, as my mother always told me, when you're given lemons, make lemonade. Organized labor is convinced that the current economic problems we're facing can be changed by a change in our leadership. So, this November, we're planning on making a lot of lemonade!

During the 1990s, working families saw a steady increase in annual income, in health-care coverage and job security protections. Since 2000, working families have seen their income stagnate or even fall. The squeeze is costing the average family about $500 a year, with prices up and wages flat. No surprise then that the new census data shows that poverty rates have increased, and the number of children in poverty has almost returned to the abysmal levels of the 1960s. We can change this picture because we've done it before, but not unless we have a change in the White House.

In many ways, it seems that we're watching a disintegration of the fundamental agreement that turned America into a great country, a country where if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would thrive. Instead, as many workers get up and go to work every day they see themselves slip further and further behind. Never making any progress, no matter how hard you work, isn't the American Dream we all grew up with.

Too often folks can't even find a job. In 49 states, job growth isn't even keeping up with population increases. In Washington, we are 164,000 jobs short of population growth between March 2001 and May 2004.

However, these job numbers are optimistic, for many people have settled for part time work or have become "self-employed" as a way to survive. They go off the jobless rolls, but our economy is clearly slipping backward.

A paycheck isn't the only reason we work. Our health care coverage is tied to our jobs, but employers are changing the rules for this fundamental benefit as well. More than 75% of the people without health insurance in our state today are working people. But fewer and fewer jobs in our state today have decent health care coverage. In the one part of our economy that is growing, the service sector, only 54.3 percent of the jobs have any health care benefits at all.

That's why the number 1 reason for personal bankruptcies now is big medical bills. Just imagine what you would do if you had a heart attack or a bad accident and no health insurance. Could you scrape up $100,000 or $250,000 to pay for a heart by-pass or a major trauma? Too many Washington workers are living with this uncertainty every day. We can do better, but not until we have new leadership.

"What's the economy for?" I often ask people. "Is it to produce livable wage jobs, with decent benefits so that we can create a strong country and a healthy community? Or is it to just make the rich richer?"

For the last few years, the answer we've been given has meant boom times for the luxury set. For example, Porsche Cars North America reports sales up nearly 20 percent, and sales at upscale retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue couldn't be better.

In this economy, the rich are getting much richer while the middle class is getting squeezed harder and harder. If the trend continues, we will recognize our future in countries like Mexico and Indonesia where a wealthy "over-class" rules while the rest labor for poverty wages and few benefits. We can choose a different future, and we have the power this November to make that choice. In other words, squeeze us some more and the juice will make a lot of lemonade.[[In-content Ad]]