Monday, May 23, 2005

Silver Lining/Mushroom Cloud
When you're looking for a Monday morning pick-me-up, Paul Krugman probably isn't the first name that comes to mind. But the always-excellent, usually-depressing Times columnist has some good news--albeit qualified--on offer today:

After November's election, the victors claimed a mandate to unravel the welfare state. But the national election was about who would best defend us from gay married terrorists. At the state level, where elections were fought on bread-and-butter issues, voters sent a message that they wanted a stronger, not weaker, social safety net.

I'm not just talking about the shift in partisan alignment, in which Democrats made modest gains in state legislatures, and achieved a few startling successes. I'm also talking about specific issues, like the lopsided votes in both Florida and Nevada for constitutional amendments raising the minimum wage.

Since the election, high-profile right-wing initiatives, at both the federal and state level, have run into a stone wall of public disapproval. President Bush's privatization road show seems increasingly pathetic. In California, the conservative agenda of Arnold Schwarzenegger, including an attempt to partially privatize state pensions, has led to demonstrations by nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters - and to a crash in his approval ratings.

There's a very good reason voters, when given a chance to make a clear choice, increasingly support a stronger, not a weaker, social safety net: they need that net more than ever. Over the past 25 years the lives of working Americans have become ever less secure. Jobs come without health insurance; 401(k)'s vanish; corporations default on their pension obligations; workers lose their jobs more often, and unemployment lasts much longer than it used to.

While participating in the Working Poor Families Project last year, I came to the conclusion that one point we had to make was that economic conditions were changing much faster than were the policies designed to help workers (and, to some extent, employers) hold their ground or advance within the economy. Though I was thinking mostly about education, training, and work-support policies, more recently it's occurred to me that the same argument substantially holds for middle and even upper-middle class families with respect to the safety net.

Krugman goes on to note how dear old Tom DeLay has boasted about "bankruptcy reform, class-action reform, energy, border security, repealing the death tax"--and that all of these pieces of legislation are "either irrelevant to or actively hostile to the economic security of working Americans." He could have added that the Republican agenda seems explicitly and quite consciously designed to further the disturbing trend of record corporate profits alongside lagging workers' wages.

I know for a fact that both policy groups and political organizations have noticed how minimum wage increases passed overwhelmingly in both Florida and Nevada last November, on the same day that Bush won both states. Similar pushes in other states are to be expected in 2006 and 2008, and we can only hope that Democrats running for Congress and, later, the White House will affiliate themselves more closely with this push for more equitably shared prosperity than did John Kerry last year. With voters given a clear choice on an issue where the politics favor our side, we can both gain ground politically and somewhat level a playing field that those currently in power are tilting as fast and furiously (in both senses) as they can.

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