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Class war in Bush's America
American Dream or American Nightmare?

December 12, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

Will your children live a better life than you? For three decades following the Second World War, most people in the U.S. could answer "yes." That answer was the basis of what was known as the "American Dream"--the belief that working people, and not just the rich, could look forward to a steadily increasing standard of living and a better future for themselves and their children.

Wages grew--not spectacularly, but enough so that most families could afford more. Millions of young people became the first in their family to go to college. Rather than working until they dropped dead, people could look forward to retirement--when they could "enjoy life" after decades of hard work.

The American Dream was modest. It didn't change the fact that the Rockefellers and the Gettys led much better lives than anyone else, thanks only to the fact that they were born into wealth. And the dream didn't include everyone.

In particular, African Americans remained second-class citizens throughout the U.S., especially under the apartheid system of the Jim Crow South. But for a majority of people in the U.S., the system of capitalism seemed to produce, if not spectacular wealth, then at least new benefits unknown to previous generations.

Today, the American Dream is dead. For 25 years, the majority of people in the U.S. have seen their living standards grow worse, not better. Wages for most of the population have stagnated or fallen. Getting through college has become a huge financial burden. People who were confident that their livelihoods were secure have found out they weren't--and those who haven't lost a job invariably find themselves working longer and harder than ever.

Rather than confidence about the present and hope for the future, working people in the U.S. today worry about holding on to what we have. Here, we print excerpts from ALAN MAASS' book Why You Should Be a Socialist--soon to be reprinted by Haymarket Books in an expanded edition.

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Working harder...or hardly working

Through most of 2003, the number of people officially counted as unemployed in the U.S. hovered at more than 8 million--about 6 percent of the U.S. labor force, a relatively low jobless rate compared to previous recessions.

But there's a lot that you couldn't tell from the official statistics. Nearly one in five people in the U.S. was laid off at some point during the three years following the turn of the decade.

Among Americans with incomes below $40,000 a year--that is, the poorer two-thirds of the population, roughly speaking--it was closer to one in four who got the ax. In other words, the 2001 recession and the years of economic slump that followed were very serious indeed for large numbers of U.S. workers--much more serious than the statistics showed.

For one thing, the official unemployment rate doesn't include the large and growing number of "discouraged workers" who have given up on finding a job at all. Another hidden group is people forced to take part-time work because they can't find full-time employment. Put these categories together, and the true rate of underemployment was probably twice as high as the official figure.

But even a more accurate calculation misses the full story. The first jobs to go in this recession were quality jobs in manufacturing that paid relatively well and provided decent benefits--thanks, usually, to the higher rate of unionization for blue-collar work.

Factory employment in the U.S. peaked in 1979 at around 20 million workers. Since then, one in four of these jobs has disappeared. It took 20 years for the first 2.5 million to go. The second 2.5 million--and then some--vanished in the first three years of the Bush administration.

The first thing that these millions of laid-off workers learned is that they couldn't expect to find a job that pays as well as their old one--when they could find work at all. By the end of 2003, jobs in sectors of the economy where employment was increasing paid $2.50 an hour less on average than jobs in sectors where employment was declining.

Those who survived the layoff ax didn't have much to celebrate, either. Corporate America responded to falling profits as the recession took hold by looking for every way to squeeze workers. In particular, union members faced relentless pressure from employers determined not just to keep wages in check and reduce benefits, but to undermine the work rules and grievance procedures built up over years of struggle.

The ongoing destruction of the kind of decent-paying jobs that gave workers the hope that they and their families would enjoy a better way of life didn't begin with the Bush years. This was a theme even in the "best of times"--the long economic expansion of the Clinton years, known to the corporate media as the 1990s "miracle economy."

In 1998, as the boom was reaching its high point, corporate layoffs also hit the highest level in a decade--higher even than the recession years of the early 1990s. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it: "Layoffs used to be a sign of bad times in Corporate America. These days, job cuts are a signal that good times aren't good enough."

Bill Clinton never tired of boasting of the millions of new jobs created during the '90s, even as Corporate America was swinging the layoff ax. But according to a study by the Jobs with Justice union coalition, 74 percent of the jobs that grew fastest in the 1990s paid less than a living wage--and 46 percent of them paid less than half a living wage. Even in the midst of the "miracle" economy, it was possible to work two and even three of these "McJobs"--and still not earn enough to lift a family out of poverty.

If you strip away the media impressions about consumer spending and Internet revolutions--and take account of the growing costs of a variety of necessities, especially health care and child care--it becomes clear that working people are having a harder time today around most of the issues at the core of their lives than a generation ago.

Between 1979 and 2002, income for the median U.S. household--that is, families at the very middle of the income ladder--rose by about 15 percent, well under 1 percent per year. But even this modest increase isn't the whole story. The growth in income is the result of households working harder and longer--primarily wives working more hours per week and more weeks per year.

According to the Economic Policy Institute's State of Working America for 2002-03, the average middle-income, two-parent family now works 660 more hours a year than in 1979. That's an additional 16 weeks worth of full-time employment, just to keep living standards from going backwards.

It reminds you of what the Red Queen told Alice in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: "Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

And there's no doubt about where the money went, either. During the same period from 1979 to 2002 when income for the median household rose by 15 percent, the income of the richest 1 percent of the U.S. population jumped by more than 200 percent. "No country without a revolution or a military defeat and subsequent occupation has ever experienced such a sharp shift in the distribution of earnings as America has in the last generation," the economist Lester Thurow summarized at the mid-point of the 1990s.

Since then, inequality in the U.S. has only grown more pronounced. These facts barely register in a mainstream media addicted to telling only good news about the U.S. economy.

But they are very much a part of the lives led by the working majority in U.S. society. And they've contributed to a deep pool of bitterness and anger. The truth is that the American Dream exists only for the handful of the people at the top who've become fantastically rich at our expense.

For everyone else, the American Dream is dead.

Sickness of the health care system

Income and wealth aren't the only ways to measure the deteriorating quality of life for working people. Consider, for example, what happens when we get sick. In terms of technology and resources, the U.S. has the most advanced health-care system in the world. Yet health care is a chronic source of fear and uncertainty for those lucky enough to remain healthy--and a nightmare for those who get sick.

Ask Rose Shaffer. At 60, she suffered a heart attack that nearly killed her--would have killed her, if she hadn't been rushed to an emergency room near her home in the south suburbs of Chicago. But three years later, she feels as if the hospital is trying to steal back her life, as she put it to a reporter from Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Rose was uninsured, and the hospital owners--Advocate Heath Care, a giant hospital chain that claims to be Christian and not for profit--hounded her relentlessly for a bill totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Rose says that Advocate sent debt collectors after her who called at all hours of the day and night, at home and at work, until she finally declared bankruptcy.

Now, at an age where she had hoped to be retired, Rose works seven days a week for a nursing agency in order to hold onto her modest house. "I'm 63, and I don't have nothing, and I'm not going to get anything," Rose said. "The whole system is messed up. In this country, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and no matter how much you work, you're going to get poorer.

Rose is one of the 43.6 million people in the U.S. without health insurance--a number that has continued to grow as fewer and fewer companies provide health care benefits to their employees. Horror stories like hers have become commonplace as "managed care" came to dominate the industry over the course of the 1990s, providing health care to 93 percent of U.S. workers and retirees by 2001.

"Mangled care" was supposed to be the solution to rising health costs. HMOs would cut out the waste and keep an eye on doctors who ordered unnecessary tests and procedures, saving consumers big money. But it was the HMOs that made the big money--by restricting care.

Their philosophy was summed up by Richard Rainwater, cofounder of the for-profit HMO Columbia-HCA: "The day has come when somebody has to do in the hospital business what McDonald's has done in the fast-food business and what Wal-Mart has done in the retailing business."

Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans want a national health system that guarantees care for everyone. In fact, a Wall Street Journal survey found that more than half of those asked would be willing to pay $2,000 a year extra in taxes to guarantee health care for those who don't have access to it.

Yet Washington has only made the problem worse. Early in the 1990s, the Clinton administration came to office promising comprehensive health-care reform. But rather than alienate the powerful health-care bosses, Clinton bargained away one point after another until the effort collapsed.

What exists in the U.S. today is really two health-care systems--one for the haves and one for the have-nots. For the rich, no expense is spared in using the latest techniques and technology on medical problems.

For the rest, health care is "rationed." Drugs and treatments that could help people live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives are often beyond reach because of a bewildering array of restrictions--imposed in the interests of the bottom line.

So it's no surprise that the most important factors determining a person's health have nothing to do with diet or exercise or smoking. The most important factors are social class and race.

The war on the poor

The American Dream never did exist for one group of Americans--the poor. And if life has become more difficult for all working people, it is a disaster for the growing numbers thrown on the trash heap in the richest country in the world. As of 2002, 34.6 million people--about one in eight Americans--lived below the official poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an increase of 3 million people over the preceding two years.

Hunger and homelessness in the U.S. were on the rise. A survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for emergency food assistance jumped by nearly 20 percent in 2002. Requests for emergency shelter assistance grew by an average of 19 percent in the 18 cities that reported an increase, the fastest rise in a decade.

These are grim statistics. But by themselves, they don't capture the terrors of being poor in the U.S. It's like walking through a minefield--where one false step can lead to catastrophe.

That's what happened to Janice Foster. In early 1998, she lost documents that she needed to remain on welfare. After her benefits were cut off, she fell behind on the rent, and in July, she and her three children were evicted. She began the ordeal that occupies all the time and effort of so many of the poor--trying to arrange a place to live for short periods with friends or relatives or in down-and-out hotels.

By August, she had failed. Janice and her children ended up at the Union Rescue homeless shelter in the middle of Los Angeles' Skid Row--a human dumping ground on the edge of the city's downtown. There, in the shadow of fancy skyscrapers, 3-year-old Deon and his 14-year-old brother William played in the alleys--among men sleeping in cardboard boxes and using drugs in the doorways.

There are plenty of well-fed academics who claim to understand all this--why people like Janice and her children have gone through hell. "If poor people behaved rationally, they would seldom be poor for long in the first place," New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead told author Jonathan Kozol.

Smug words. But among the millions of people with stories like Janice's, there is little "irrational" about anything they did. The only thing irrational is the miserable circumstances that they were forced to deal with in the first place. "If only I could, I would have done things differently," Janice told a New York Times reporter, thinking back on the events that landed her and her family on Skid Row. "I would have saved more money. But really, I didn't have any money to save."

Yet blaming the poor for being poor is at the heart of everything the politicians say and do about poverty. In 2002, George Bush signed legislation that reauthorized the system for aid to the poor transformed by Bill Clinton's welfare "reform" law in 1996.

Bush's contempt for the most vulnerable could be seen in two priorities of the religious right that showed up in the reauthorization bill--$300 million a year in spending to promote "health marriages," and an increase in the work requirement recipients must meet to keep their benefits.

But when it comes to welfare, Bush is only an accessory after the fact to the original crime--committed by Clinton in 1996 when he adopted Republican proposals to "reform" the welfare system that people like Janice Foster relied on to survive. Clinton's law abolished the federal government's main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

But it didn't stop there. The law slashed $54 billion over six years from all kinds of programs--from food stamps to Supplementary Security Income for disabled children. According to the Urban Institute, the poorest one-fifth of U.S. families lost an average of $1,310 a year in benefits of all sorts as a result of the 1996 law. More than $100 a month--that's the difference between hard times and destitution for millions of people.

Yet the consensus in Washington is that welfare "reform" worked--Bill Clinton considers this his greatest "success." Success? The 1990s economic expansion may have hidden the consequences for a while, but numerous reports show that between a third and half of the recipients who left the welfare rolls couldn't find regular work. Estimates of the average wage for former recipients in different regions of the country are almost always less than $7 an hour--an improvement over the paltry benefits they received from welfare, but not enough to lift a family above the poverty line.

According to one study at the end of the 1990s, about half of former recipients said that they had skipped a meal to make food last until the end of the month, and 40 percent said they couldn't pay rent, mortgage or utility bills at least once in the previous year. This isn't success. It's a disaster--suffered by the most vulnerable people in U.S. society.

Why you should be a socialist

This is the reality of the capitalist system. For huge numbers of people, just surviving from day to day is intolerably difficult. For the rest of the vast majority, the struggle to get by leaves almost no time for leisure--much less for putting our minds to making the world a better place to live in.

To hear defenders of the system explain it, this is inevitable. It may not be a perfect world, we're told, but it's the best we can do--and the best we can hope for is to stop it from getting worse.

What a sick society it is which tells us that one in four children in the U.S. must go to bed hungry. That medications and care should be withheld from some in the interest of profit. That the majority in society must work harder and longer--for less and less.

We don't have to pay that price. The resources exist to eliminate all this--and to build a socialist society free of poverty and oppression, where we all have control over our lives. That is a world worth fighting for.

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