Rich getting richer, everyone else poorer

Posted: March 22, 2013

THERE WERE no champagne corks popping, no ticker tape down Broadway, and only muted cheers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange earlier this month when the Dow - the supposed blue-chip barometer of America's fiscal health - bulled through its 2007 closing high of 14,164 and kept going higher.

There may have been a sense of smug satisfaction up in penthouse boardrooms of corporations that have stashed away an astonishing $1.45 trillion in cash - more than half of that overseas - while average CEO pay continued to rise, even during the bleakest years of the economic crisis.

But there was no rejoicing on middle-class retail strips like Aramingo Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where wary shoppers and job-seekers pass empty storefronts, often on their way to homes where basic services like cable TV or telephone landlines have been cut off so families can keep putting food on the table.

"I could care less," said Tracy Mulvehill, of Northeast Philly, 50 and unemployed for the past year, when asked about the upbeat reports from Wall Street and of a gradual recovery in the job market. "It doesn't pay my bills."

Right now, Mulvehill - who lives with a daughter and two grandchildren - is one of thousands of local residents who will see their long-term unemployment benefits slashed by nearly 11 percent in 10 days, and she's busy calculating how she'll live with an additional $200 less every month. "Now I've dropped my Internet," she said, "and for all my other bills I'm going to have to rob Peter to pay Paul one month, and the next month I'll rob Paul to pay Peter."

Welcome to the Great Disconnect - the 21st-century American economy.

Nearly five years after the nation's financial underpinnings crashed and nearly burned as the stock market lost more than half its value, the United States is seeing the green shoots of recovery, but mainly just for big corporations - enjoying profits that are at their all-time record level, as measured against the overall economy - or the very wealthy.

It's not surprising that just days after the Dow hit its all-time high, the key survey of U.S. consumer confidence hit its lowest level in 17 months.

Economists aren't sure where to pin the most blame: on lingering record rates of high unemployment, stagnant or sinking paychecks for the middle class, a 2 percent spike in payroll taxes, higher gas prices or pessimism over looming cuts from the federal-budget impasse.

Jared Bernstein, the former top economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said that the bottom line is that the affluent - thanks to favorable tax codes and the long slide in the influence of labor unions - have been crushing the working class, and then accusing anyone who complains about inequity of waging "class warfare."

"If you're on the side that's winning the class warfare, nobody wants to bring it up," he said with a laugh.

Bernstein's fellow economist, Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, crunched the numbers for the two years coming out of the financial meltdown, starting in 2009, and came up with the jaw-dropping finding that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans had captured 121 percent the nation's gains in income. Income for the remaining 99 percent actually declined further over those same two years.

Those kinds of mind-blowing statistics are just the daily reality for millions of working poor like North Philadelphia's Delilah Peterson, who commutes an hour by van each way to work as an assistant at a nursing home in Doylestown, sometimes going out at 5:30 a.m., working a double shift and coming back after midnight. She said that on the weeks that she can't work overtime, she sometimes collects food stamps.

The married 43-year-old mother of five said government aid - as well as cutting out perks like cable TV or elaborate birthday parties - is the only way to keep her four youngest kids in Catholic schools (her oldest is finishing college), especially with her husband able to find only occasional, part-time work.

"It's really hard every week - we're struggling with what to pay for," said Peterson, who recently borrowed her mom's cellphone for calls and is scraping to find a way to replace the family's water heater, which broke last week. Although her children receive partial scholarships, she said that paying her share of their tuition is her priority. "Education is the key," she said.

Experts would agree with her wholeheartedly, noting that workers without college degrees continue to be slammed the hardest in the current economy. They said that paychecks are remaining flat or even shrinking because employers can take advantage of intractably high unemployment - 7.7 percent nationally, and 8.2 percent in Pennsylvania - to keep wages at depressed levels.

"Employers have downsized and [have] discovered they can get by with fewer employees," said Mark Price, labor economist at Pennsylvania's liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center. Price and other experts note that the oft-cited ability of employers to either move jobs overseas or replace workers with automation is part of the problem. But other factors are also in play; the economic recovery of the mid-2000s was largely fueled by workers borrowing against the inflated value of their homes - which is not possible in today's market.

Meanwhile, the rise in the stock market - although it has been beneficial to workers with 401(k) plans or other mutual funds - may be somewhat illusory, aided by the Federal Reserve Bank pumping money into the economy. Many of those corporate profits have been shifted overseas - and companies don't want to bring the money back to the U.S. and pay taxes. And labor unions that would have struck for higher pay in the 1950s or 1960s have been eviscerated.

"This period of high unemployment is basically undermining the bargaining power of the typical guy or gal," said Bernstein.

Economists say there are solutions, if there's political will. In Pennsylvania, Price said the commonwealth flubbed an opportunity to create thousands of jobs by funding a road-and-infrastructure program during the depth of the recession, when labor and borrowing costs were also at rock-bottom. Bernstein said a higher minimum wage - President Obama wants to increase it to $9 an hour, from the current $7.25 - would help the plight of the working poor. Both economists hope for a budget deal that would reverse the worst effects of the federal budget cuts - with layoffs, unpaid furloughs and benefit cuts - known as "sequestration."

In Northeast Philadelphia, Mulvehill - who has dropped off scores of resumes but has failed to get any employers to respond since she lost a part-time job at Parx Casino in Bensalem last year - is now simply hoping to get her soon-to-be-slashed unemployment benefits restored. "I'm really trying to focus on my mortgage and my car payments for now," she said.


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: Attytood.com

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