Economic road rage

Get the women and children off the streets -- the recovery is coming!

By Joyce McGreevy

Published May 3, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

I think I understand now. There's nothing wrong with the economy, nothing at all. It's up, it's running -- and it's headed right toward us. Watch out.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans has been calling the economy one of the strongest he's seen in his lifetime. That would make him the first three-year-old in government.

Cheney-Rove presidential campaign chair Marc Racicot, who in 2002 warned Senate Democrats "not to stand in the way of economic recovery and job creation" by voting against tax cuts, suggests that the Republican spin has sprouted actual wheels and an engine. This week Racicot asserted that a Kerry presidency would "bring the economic recovery to a screeching halt." Never mind that as governor of Montana, Racicot paved the way for record deficits and bankrupt schools while fueling multimillion-dollar projects that came equipped with sidecars for political donors.

The economy, it seems, is roadworthy. There's just one small problem. Many of us are roadkill.

Well, not all. Most of us get to first gas it up, pumping our energy, our aspirations, our health, and even our children into the engine. And then we're sent off to play in the traffic. Good luck. Run fast.

Given such choices, some defensive tips for crossing the economic divide might be order.

Try to be a powerful special interest.

Worried about outsourcing? Your only protection is to become a powerful lobby. Last week Commerce Undersecretary Grant Aldonas warned Congress that a bipartisan bill to allow Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs would cause serious job losses. "There will be disinvestment in the United States, a loss of employment opportunities and frankly a loss of an industry that is a huge multiplier" of benefits to the U.S. economy, Aldonas said.

Remember -- shipping jobs overseas is good for the economy when it means higher profit margins on flimsy furniture at a cost of only hundreds of lost jobs per day. But it's bad when it means affordable heart meds for your grandmother, because that would threaten the $139 billion in extra profits that the pharmaceutical industry stands to make under the new Medicare law.

Be an investor, not an earner.

For investors, stagnant wages and higher productivity mean lower operating costs, bigger returns and higher stock market rates.

For earners, stagnant wages and higher productivity mean lower budgeting funds, bigger debt and higher bankruptcy rates.

Don't be a leader or an assistant.

And don't dispense medicines or feed anybody. New regulations deny overtime pay to pharmacists, chefs, administrative assistants and anyone who might be classified as a team leader. (Your chances of a promotion just got better.) Only people earning less than $23,700 are guaranteed additional pay for coming in early, staying late, and working weekends. Wow, keep saving that $0-$10 more per hour and some day your family can realize the great American dream of living somewhat above the poverty line.

Be Canadian.

Job growth in Canada since 2001 has outpaced job growth in the United States, a reversal of the previous decade, in which U.S. job growth exceeded that of Canada by 33 percent. While the United States has lost more than 2.2 million jobs since 2001, Canada has continued at about the same pace as in the 1990s. If the United States had kept pace with Canada, there'd be 9 million new jobs by now. Bit of a difference, eh?

Get by on minimum wage.

By taking on some of the most physically demanding and emotionally deadening work in the nation, you'll earn as much as $10,000 a year. On the down side, this plus another $3.55 an hour falling out of the sky would still not be enough to lift a family of four above the poverty level, as 27.5 million Americans have already discovered.

But Timothy Kane of the Heritage Foundation thinks it will have to do. According to Kane, raising the $5.15 minimum wage would result in (you've heard it before) job losses. By which logic, going back to the original 25 cents an hour of 1938 would create jobs for everyone -- or, as the administration likes to say, everyone who wants a job.

Don't be a teenager.

Nationally, the number of teens with jobs remains stuck at a 39-year low. But college tuition has jumped 28 percent in the last three years. If you're a teenager, you're competing with adults who lost the kinds of jobs that required four or more years in college, as well as with the elderly who need the employee discount on French fries or they won't be able to eat and take their meds too. Can we interest you in the draft?

Don't be 65 or older.

Here's how the new Medicare card works: First, it promises you a savings of 10 to 25 percent on all drugs. Next, it locks you in to the card you initially choose. Then it lets the card sponsors change prices on a weekly basis. The Medicare Care card -- when you care enough to send the very least.

Don't be unemployed.

From December, when the federal program to help the long-term unemployed began phasing out, through April, nearly 1.5 million jobless workers exhausted their unemployment benefits without receiving additional aid.

The good news? There's good money to be made if you can get over your obsession with doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. The U.S. awarded $7 billion in Iraq reconstruction contracts to 10 companies that paid $300 million in penalties to resolve allegations of bid rigging, fraud, delivery of faulty military parts, and environmental damage.

Don't get sick.

If you are sick but have no insurance because you can't afford it, expect to pay more at the hospital. That's right. Many hospitals are charging the uninsured hundreds of dollars upfront or billing them at a much higher rate afterward. Think of it as the poverty penalty: If you insist on being poor, you'll have to pay extra for it.

If you could afford to lose a day's pay, you might scout out a low-cost medical clinic. Unless the advance surgical team of the right wing has gotten there first and pulled the plug.

Don't eat.

Don't squander all your rent money treating disease or injury. Food prices recently jumped up -- 5 percent for milk, 15 percent on meat, and 30 percent for eggs. Wheat, corn, and soybean futures have soared. You know that macaroni and cheese you've been living on? You might want to save it for a special occasion. The line for the food bank forms behind the 23 million people -- including families of soldiers in Iraq -- who ended up there in 2003.

Give up housing.

Some people economize by giving up lattes. HUD has just announced something more ambitious. Due to a dramatic change in policy, HUD will force many housing agencies to scale back voucher programs by, for example, increasing rent burden of low-income families that receive vouchers and lowering the amount of rent a voucher can cover.

This will keep more families out of neighborhoods that have better school and less crime. Some agencies will have no alternative but to terminate assistance to some low-income families that currently rely on vouchers to help pay the rent.

Yet Americans in the bottom 20 percent of households paid 11.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while those in the top 1 percent paid only 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes -- less than half the rate of the poorest fifth.

To paraphrase Martha, it's a HUD thing.

Try not to exist.

Job creation would need to jump up by at least 40,000 jobs per month to keep pace with the population. So help us out here by not showing up in the first place. Besides, the far right will love you so much more as long as you're unborn.

Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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Business Great Recession Healthcare Reform Unemployment U.s. Economy