Trouble in Paradise

TROUBLE IN PARADISE….I didn’t have the heart to blog this last night, but you really ought to read the second installment in the Peter Gosselin’s LA Times series about economic risk. On an analytical note, the point of the series is that although the poor may be a bit better off in average terms than they were 30 years ago, they face a far greater risk of imminent disaster. The chart on the right tells the story: the working poor face income swings as high as 50% per year, compared to only 25% in 1970.

But the real reason to read the story is to see the human face of this problem. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s heartbreaking on a whole bunch of different levels. Conservatives will point to the folly of buying big screen TVs on incomes that can’t afford it, but the bigger picture overwhelms this kind of pettiness: every time the profiled families seem like they’re finally making enough money to afford a (barely) middle class lifestyle, disaster strikes: legal problems, job losses, 9/11, loss of medical coverage, union busting, you name it. An unexpected miscarriage costs $5,000 ? and if that happens right after your union job has been replaced by a nonunion job that pays $2/hour less and doesn’t provide medical coverage, you’re in deep trouble. Things that seem small to most of us are life-threatening crises to people at the bottom of the income scale.

Structural changes in the economy are part of the reason for this, of course, but it’s made worse by the growing indifference of our government to cushioning unforeseen disaster. There was a bit of progress on this front during the late 90s, partly because of the strong economy and partly because Bill Clinton managed to push through some of those famous small bore programs of his, but it was still a drop in the bucket compared to the overall trend. For many people, the result is a sense of constantly living on the edge, even if, statistically speaking, their average income over a long period is higher than it was a couple of decades ago.

This problem is not likely to improve any time soon, given the modern Republican obsession with either dismembering our traditional safety net programs or else piling ever more individual risk onto them ? as they’re trying to do with Social Security, for example.

Risk vs. security. At some point, the risk-based society that the Republican party is trying to build will finally come crashing down on them. In the meantime, it’s up to Democrats to make sure that when it does, the blame falls exactly where it belongs.