Syria and the Reality at Home in America

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Robert Reich

Syria and the Reality at Home in America

While all eyes are on Syria and America’s response, the real economy in which most Americans live is sputtering.

More than four years after the recession officially ended, 11.5 million Americans are unemployed, many of them for years.  Nearly 4 million have given up looking for work altogether. If they were actively looking, today’s unemployment rate would be 9.5 percent instead of 7.3 percent.

The share of the population working or seeking a job is the lowest in thirty-five years. The unemployment rate among high-school dropouts is 11 percent;  for blacks, 12.6 percent. More than one in five American children face hunger, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And the median wage keeps dropping, adjusted for inflation. Incomes for all but the top 1 percent are below where they were at the start of the economic recovery in 2009.

A decent society would put people to work — even if this required more government spending on roads, bridges, ports, pipelines, parks and schools.

A decent society would lift the minimum wage, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy), and provide food stamps and housing assistance, so that no family with a full-time worker has to live in poverty.

We can afford this minimal level of decency.

Deficit hawks in both parties don’t want you to know this but the federal deficit as a proportion of the total economy is shrinking fast: It’s on track to be only 4 percent by the end of September, when the fiscal year ends. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts it will be only 3.4 percent in the fiscal year starting October 1.

To put this into perspective, consider that the average ratio of the deficit to the GDP over the past 30 years has been 3.3 percent. So the deficit is barely a problem at all. (We’re still projected to have large deficits starting 10 years from now because of all the aging boomers needing health care.)

Yet while attention is focused on Syria, food stamps for the nation’s poor are being cut. House Republicans would eliminate food stamps for more than 800,000 Americans who now receive them but still do not get enough to eat or have only a barely adequate diet. 

Even if the Democrats prevent these draconian cuts, food stamp benefits will still be reduced in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires.

While attention is focused on Syria, funds for the nation’s poorest schools are being slashed. Teachers are still being let go. Classrooms are more crowded than ever. The sequester will drain even more funds after October 1.

While attention is focused on Syria, low-income housing is disappearing. Funding for housing vouchers has already been cut by $854 million this year, with the result that half of all public housing authorities have stopped issuing new vouchers — even though the percentage of households most in need of assistance has grown by 19 percent since 2009. The cuts scheduled to begin October 1 will be even more severe.

While attention is focused on Syria, America’s rich are growing even richer. A single year’s income of one of the ten richest Americans could buy housing for every homeless person in America for an entire year. (This calculation is based on a typical day last winter, when over 633,000 people were homeless, and the typical monthly rental cost of a unit with single room occupancy of $558 per month.)

But we are not talking about any of this. We are not debating what’s happening to our nation. We are not creating jobs for the long-term unemployed. We are not raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC, or providing enough food stamps to feed America’s poor children or keep working Americans out of poverty. We are not improving the nation’s poorest schools or providing enough low-income housing to keep destitute families off the nation’s streets.

We are not reforming our tax code or making college more affordable or reforming our brutal immigration system. We are not addressing the widening gap between a few at the top who are doing better than ever and a larger number below who are sinking. We are not getting big money out of politics.

We are paralyzed at home — as we turn our attention to a potential quagmire abroad. This is the great tragedy of our time.

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations; Locked in the Cabinet; Supercapitalism; and his newest, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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