Monday, May 09, 2005

BUSINESS WEEK ONLINE has a very interesting article on why a growing number of Americans are opposed to any more shredding of the safety net and want the holes sewn up.

George Silli, a 66-year-old waiter from suburban Philadelphia, had a brush with President Bush's Ownership Society, and it was an experience he'll not soon forget. Silli's psyche and his wallet still bear the scorch marks of the 2000 market meltdown. He saw the value of his mutual funds drop by 60% and is convinced that opening Social Security to individual investing would produce similar results on a massive scale. ``If people are left to their own devices, we'll become top-heavy with poor people,'' Silli says.

A political independent, Silli has learned enough about the market to be pessimistic about a small fry's chances. He not only wants to leave Social Security alone but also thinks politicians should expand entitlements by mandating near-universal health insurance as a shield against soaring medical bills.

Although Silli may not know it, he has plenty of company from all walks of American life. He's part of a diverse group that includes the pathologically risk-averse and those who are willing to take the Ownership Society for a spin -- as long as it's equipped with air bags.

The surprise here is that it's not just liberals or Democrats who hold these views. An increasing number of Republicans who voted for Bush in the last election; as well as white male swing voters -- the Reagan Democrats -- are part of the bloc that feels Bush has gone too far in destroying traditional social and economic protections. And it's because the economy is so uncertain. It's not so much that jobs are hard to come by -- although they certainly are not plentiful. It's more that the jobs that are out there don't pay nearly as well as they used to, and even for those who own their own businesses or who are employed in lucrative fields, companies can go out of business, outsource the jobs to India, downsize, or just decide they don't like you anymore. Job security is nonexistent; workers can be earning six figures one day and working at McDonald's or Target the next.

Big swings in family income, according to studies by Yale University political scientist Jacob S. Hacker, have increased markedly over the past two decades as the finances of two-earner households have been stretched thin. Even houses -- most Americans' entrée to the Ownership Society -- are increasingly in hock: In the past 15 years, mortgage and home-equity borrowing has risen from 35.1% of home values to 43.9%. That has made families, especially those with unskilled workers, more vulnerable to a catastrophic jolt such as job loss or serious illness. Personal bankruptcies increased fivefold from 1980 to 2002, with many filers citing a layoff or medical emergency as the tipping point.

As income volatility has grown, government -- prodded by free-market Republicans out to reverse the New Deal -- has been offloading ever more responsibility onto individuals. The financial pressure has become much more acute because of another squeeze occurring in the private sector. Corporations vying to compete globally have steadily shifted costs and responsibility for pensions and health care to their employees as part of the restructuring wave that began in the 1970s.

Now, on top of all this income volatility, job uncertainty, downsizing, outsourcing, and chipping away at employer-provided benefits, along comes Bush the Compassionate Conservative asking Americans to give up or compromise one of the last sources of financial security that's left to them: Social Security. Well, you know what? The middle class is saying, Enough is enough.

It's not just Social Security either. S.S. has always been an easy issue to support for politicians; in fact, not supporting it has traditionally been dangerous to public officials' electoral health. Not so with issues like universal health insurance coverage and a guaranteed minimum income. Support those out loud if you're running for office, and you'll be labeled anything from pie-in-the-sky idealist to socialist or communist.

But that's changing. Listen to this:

A Sept. 2-5, 2004, survey by the Civil Society Institute, a Newton Centre (Mass.) nonprofit group, found 67% of Americans think it's a good idea to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens, as Canada and Britain do, with just 27% dissenting. Support for a government-directed universal insurance system is strong, despite GOP warnings about socialized medicine. Similarly, a Feb. 3-5 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 47% of respondents believe the government ought to guarantee a minimum standard of living for retirees, vs. 35% who felt that was an individual's responsibility.

These are not fringe positions anymore. It's George W. Bush who is out of the mainstream on these issues now.

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