DURING THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL TV DEBATES, George W. Bush relentlessly repeated the tired Republican mantra that government, especially the federal government, is the enemy of American workers. As president, he's turned that rhetoric into reality.
Actually, Bush is as much a big-government guy as was Lyndon Johnson or FDR. But in his case, Bush has used federal power to undercut workers' bargaining power, dumping workers out of the middle class and kicking the ladder away from those trying to get in. Jobs in factories and services that pay good wages and offer decent benefits are disappearing. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Americans--those who must work to put food on their tables and roofs over their heads--are more financially insecure and have seen their living standards erode. In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked the American people, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" When John Kerry poses that question later this year, the answer, by virtually every measure, will be "no."
Jobs and Unemployment. Three years after George W. Bush was inaugurated, the U.S. economy had lost a net 2 million jobs--the worst job record of any recovery since the Great Depression. Laid-off workers are now unemployed for an average of five months; when they're finally hired, they go to firms paying 20 percent less. The jobless rate released in February was 5.6 percent. But, in fact, the labor market is much weaker than that. For one thing, most of the jobs that have been created have been temporary. What's more, reacting to the bleak labor market, large numbers of discouraged job seekers have simply dropped out of the workforce. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that if these missing workers were taken into account, the unemployment rate this February would have been 7.4 percent.
Bush could have responded by providing funds to cash-strapped states for investment in education, health, and infrastructure, which would have in turn created jobs. Instead, he used the economic downturn to rationalize permanent tax cuts that will transfer more after-tax income from the working middle class to the rich. At this point, even the most gullible of voters can see that the Bush tax cuts were not aimed at creating jobs, so it's no surprise that the cuts haven't.
Inevitably, the administration has been forced to downsize its claims that it's reviving the job market. In 2002, Bush predicted that America would have 138.3 million jobs by 2004. The next year, the 2004 forecast was 135.2 million jobs. Now it's 132.7 million. But to reach even that figure, job growth would have to average 460,000 jobs each month for the rest of the year, which is highly improbable (jobs grew in February by 21,000).
As a result of the weak job market, almost one-fourth of America's jobless have been out of work for more than six months--the highest level of long-term unemployment in 20 years. The maximum length of time for which someone can collect regular unemployment benefits, which average $265 per week, is normally six months. When unemployment is high, eligibility is typically extended for another 13 weeks. But just before Christmas 2003, Bush and the Republican Congress cut off the extended benefits. So far, more than 1.1 million workers and their families--most of whom live paycheck to paycheck--have lost this modest but crucial lifeline.
Wages. For those Americans with jobs, 2003 was the worst year for wage growth since 1996. It was especially true for those who make up the male working-class core of the "Reagan Democrats": Real weekly earnings for full-time, male workers over 25 fell for all but the top 10 percent of wage earners.
As a result, working longer hours is the only way many can cling to a middle-class income. Yet the administration is busy revising the regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that would make roughly 8 million workers ineligible for overtime pay. …