Talking about the economy on the eve of war seems almost in bad taste. In the face of a momentous decision, we are not supposed to be preoccupied with jobs and incomes, profits and losses. Yet most of us are necessarily preoccupied with such matters and even the rumors of war cannot obscure just how troubled Americans are about the economy. Their unhappiness is translating into impatience with President Bush.
The New York Times/CBS News Poll taken from March 7-9, typical of a series of recent surveys, found that just 40 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the economy. That's roughly the core Republican vote. The survey found that 52 percent disapproved.
Disapproval of Bushonomics has more than doubled since the president's high tide of popularity after 9/11. What explains the new gloom?
There is no need to belabor what's happened to the stock market. What's happened to the job market is at least as troubling. True, the latest unemployment rate of 5.8 percent is much lower than the 10 percent figure hit at the depths of the 1982 recession. But the current unemployment rate understates the pain of this strange economic period where even upturns don't seem to be producing new jobs.
Part of the problem is that long-term unemployment is a much bigger problem than short-term joblessness, and too many who lost their jobs aren't finding new ones. As the Economic Policy Institute's analysis of the latest unemployment figures showed, those who have been without work for more than six months make up 22.1 percent of total unemployment. That's the highest percentage since October 1992.
By some measures, as the EPI noted, we are in "the longest continuous stretch of job decline since 1944-46." Since March 2001, the economy has lost 2.5-million private sector jobs. The most recent unemployment figures showed payrolls falling by 308,000, the biggest monthly drop since November 2001. And it's not just the unemployed or blue-collar workers who are hurting. Wage growth for professional and technical workers, for example, is as low as it has been in the last quarter-century.
Behind these numbers are millions of human beings. At the bottom of the economy, welfare rolls are increasing at a moment when state and local governments are short of cash to ease the plight of the poor. As Mary Otto reported this week in the Washington Post, states could face the agonizing choice of either helping families on welfare or assisting those just barely getting by to stay off the welfare rolls.
At the upper end, bad economic times are forcing college students to apply for assistance in droves. Greg Winter and Jennifer Medina wrote this week in the New York Times that "universities are awash in financial aid requests that dwarf those of earlier years, often from students who never thought of asking for help before and now find themselves scrambling for ways to stay in school." Winter and Medina noted that the very forces flattening family incomes and portfolios are doing the same to the endowments of colleges and universities, limiting their capacity to help students.
You would think that the real world might impinge upon politics and that Washington would step in to ease the burdens on those the economy is hurting the most. Alas, you would be wrong. Policy is going entirely the opposite way. Rep. Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, proposed a budget this week that will require deep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, food stamps and countless other programs. Nussle made the cuts to accommodate Bush's large tax reductions.
At least Nussle is honest enough to acknowledge that you can't have war and big tax cuts without giving up something. But what we're giving up is precisely what we need. In sluggish times, Washington should be increasing, not decreasing, assistance to the poor, to students, to those losing health insurance and to state and local governments.
And, anyway, what Washington gives away in tax cuts will be taken back by the states. The federal tax cuts will mainly benefit the wealthy. The state tax increases will fall primarily on the middle class. And the program cuts the states make will especially hurt the poor.
It's said that President Bush's political standing depends on how the war with Iraq goes. In fact, if the war goes well, citizens will quickly turn their attention back to their priorities at home. And unless things change fast, they won't like what they see after the war anymore than they like what they are seeing now.
+ E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. +
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