The Destruction of Citizen Wealth

New Orleans    It is hard to miss the markers of the precipitous slide of US citizen wealth flowing from the Great Recession.  New figures from the Census Bureau indicate another dive for the 4th straight year (obviously starting in 2007 in the Bush era).  We now stand a hair above $50,000 in median household income.  That’s not bad money, but it is now almost 9% below the high water mark at the end of the Clinton 2nd term at close to $56000 in 1999.

It’s a butt kicking for African-American families (now at $32,366) and Hispanic families ($38,624).  With the housing crisis still largely unabated measurements of wealth (real assets), as opposed to household income (just “maintaining”) will be hammered even more.

The Wall Street Journal had two interesting charts.  One showed that there has still been an uptick over the last several years in the percentage of people living in poverty.  In 2011 the poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,021.  The percentage of people in poverty is now 15%!

The other chart looked at how bad it would be if the Republicans had their way and eviscerated the remaining pieces of what used to be called the “safety net.”

Persons below 100% of Poverty Level 2011  46,247,000

If food stamps counted as income  42,347,000

If earned income credit counted as income   40,547,000

Without unemployment benefits  48,547,000

Without Social Security income    67,647,000

Looked at another way, 20 million people would be destitute without Social Security and 8 million would be so if business succeeded in denying unemployment benefits.  In fact the upticks in poverty rates point directly at improvements coming in the wake of the Affordable Health Care Act, the dreaded Obama-Care of the right.

Obama with a housing policy that worked to push back foreclosures and kept people above water would have seen an uptick in household income.  Maybe that’s a lesson for his 2nd term, but as a lesson from a Romney 1st term should be to head for the hills and hope you can live off the land.

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Defending the Constitution for Workers and Not Elites

New Orleans    Hidden in the New York Times the day after the July 4th holiday was a fascinating op-ed piece entitled Workingman’s Constitution, by William E. Forbath, a professor of law and history at the University of Texas in Austin.  Forbath was writing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, so that gave him his hook, but his real theme was that “liberals” were dropping the ball in not fully understanding and appreciating that the design and updates of the Constitution were meant to guarantee what we might call “distributive justice,” and the opportunity – and right – for average American citizens rather than just elites to live happily and well in economic terms.

It seems to me that Forbath makes a number of strong points here that are worth note and discussion.  One that underlies all of this arguments is that in the hue and cry by conservatives to “follow the Constitution,” too many of us are ceding the Constitution to the rightwing without hesitating long enough to make a fight for its strengths for our positions as well, which undermines our own programs and policies.

Liberals have too often been complacent and purely defensive. The Constitution, they often declare, does not speak to the rights and wrongs of economic life; it leaves that to politics. Laissez-faire doctrines were buried by the New Deal.  Until last week, this response may have been understandable. But it was always misleading as history, and wrong in principle, as well. And it was bad politics, providing no clear counter-narrative to support the powers of government now under attack from the right.

Pulling examples from James Madison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Forbath makes a persuasive case that the enduring constitution is interlaced with a “distributive tradition” and that “you can’t have a republican government, and certainly not a constitutional democracy amid gross material inequality…because gross inequality …destroys the material independence and security that democratic citizens require to participate on a roughly equal footing in political and social life.”

This is profound and powerful stuff, and there may not be enough students matriculating from UT Law School ready to take pen an voice to join this army, so the rest of us need to take careful note if we are able to wrest the Constitution out of the grimy, greedy hands of the Koch Brothers and their Justices on the Court and their tribunes in politics.

The Constitution on this account promises real equality of opportunity; it calls on all three branches of government to ensure that all Americans enjoy a decent education and livelihood and a measure of security against the hazards of illness, old age and unemployment — all so they have a chance to do something that has value in their own eyes and a chance to engage in the affairs of their communities and the larger society. Government has not only the authority but also the duty to underwrite these promises.

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