Here at Cerulean Sanctum, we talk little about politics and much about economic justice issues. Today, we'll see how those two items intersected in the election last week and how we American Christians must wake up to a brutal reality.
Pundits galore propounded the reason that Republicans got tossed off Capitol Hill, but they missed the real voter zeitgeist. Given the glowing economic news trumpeted in the usual Republican-sympathetic media sources, the talking heads looked only to non-economic federal issues to explain stunning Republican losses.
But to update a famous phrase, "It's still the economy, stupid."
While voters may talk about the Iraq War, terrorism, and a number of other global issues Republicans bungled, they'll vote based on local issues. Only people satisfied with their local outlook will vote global and national issues. If the local outlook is grim, forget about anyone looking beyond his own backyard. Local economic health, in particular, drives voting.
Here in (formerly, as of 11/7/06) Republican-dominated Ohio, the state with the worst job prospects in the country, a poll showed that 83% of Ohioans viewed economic issues as "very important" or "extremely important" in determining their Senate pick (Source: The Wall Street Journal, 11/8/06). But Republicans, thinking the economy was superb for everyone, continued to campaign on any issue but improving the economy. They expected folks to suck down the hoopla over the "great economy" despite seeing bare cupboards. As a result, Ohio incumbent Republican senator Mike DeWine got slaughtered by his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown, who took a more aggressive stance regarding Ohio's economic health. We talk about Virginia tipping the balance of power in the Senate, but DeWine's loss was potentially a greater news story, since it highlighted voter unease with the supposedly terrific economy. Plenty of people took one look at their bank accounts and the collective sigh sounded a lot like "*&^%!"
Ohio can't be the sole state with hurting workers. As we'll see, national figures could scare the heck out of anyone, regardless of state. So I suspect that many of the Republican losses reflect middle-class voters facing economic pressures, voting with their empty pockets.
As we know, money talks.
Consider the following realities:
- The American savings rate hovers in negative numbers. (Source)
- While salaries in the United States rose substantially in the United in the period 2000-2004, that wealth was almost entirely concentrated in the top one percent of wage-earners (household incomes of $300,000+/yr). That one percent saw a 19.8 percent increase in their income over the period. The other 99 percent? A 3 percent increase—not even close to keeping pace with 3 percent year-over-year inflation. (Plus, recent analysis of 2005-2006 shows a continued widening of the salary discrepancy.) (Source)
- Consumer debt continues to rise. As of August 2006, Americans have never carried greater debt. (Interestingly, those numbers backtracked a bit in September. I suspect people smelled trouble on the horizon. Perhaps that further proves Election Day results, especially since Republicans polled better against their Democratic opponents before September.) (Source)
- For the first time since records began, highly educated Americans saw their earnings potential decrease in 2005, demolishing the accepted wisdom that more education translates into higher salaries. (Source)
While some debate that the negative savings rate ignores overall wealth, the information becomes even more dire when factoring in leverage and who holds investment wealth.
Many Americans leverage their home equity. With housing prices falling in almost every state, that leverage only eats away wealth and consumes retirement savings, compounding the problem. In addition, overall wealth incorporates investments, and again, that top one percent controls 93 percent of all investment wealth. (Just wait until those rich Baby Boomers start retiring, too, and begin pulling their money out of stocks.)
Given the rich are getting richer, what does the economic news tell us of the average family? For starters, the typical worker watched upper management prosper, while his or her real world dollars lost buying power. I know many people in their peak earning years whose companies reported record income, yet watched helplessly as their employers eliminated bonuses, cut back on insurance compensation, and froze or reduced cost-of-living increases.
I can't speak for you, but in our area in the last year alone, the cost of consumer goods skyrocketed. The box of cereal I bought last year for $2.29 is $2.99 now—a 31 percent increase. Broccoli cost $1.59 last November, but $1.99 a year later—25 percent more. Our electric company raised area rates 30 percent. And don't get me going on gasoline. I paid $1.59/gal. in the summer of 2005 and almost a dollar more now.
One doesn't need a PhD in mathematics to note that no one out there's received a 35 percent cost of living increase in the last year! Increasingly, middle class folks like us watch helplessly as our incomes buy less and less.
Five years ago, I knew several families where dad worked and mom didn't. I can't think of a single one like that now. While the unemployment figures look strong, do they merely reflect more families forced to put both parents to work to keep pace? If more women enter the job market (primarily in low-wage retail or service industry jobs) just to make ends meet at home, that puts a damper on much of that ecstatic job info, doesn't it?
My mother-in-law told me a new Wendy's opened in her small town. To her shock, most of the employees are over forty. Is working at a fast food restaurant the goal of people in their peak earning years? If so, we're in deep trouble.
In March 2006, I asked readers about their financial stability. More than sixty replied, about half via personal e-mail, the others through comments. Almost universally, people under 35 were better off at the end of 2005 than in previous years. That's to be expected, since many of them are young marrieds with both spouses working and few (or no) children. But the real shocker—and almost all these replies came through personal e-mails—concerned the state of people over forty. Many were far worse off than just five years before, having lost jobs (often multiple times) or relegated to underemployment, compromised financially in what many consider peak earning years. Those tales broke my heart. I understand that kind of pain and what happens when the Church has no response—and none on the horizon, either.
And in the end, that's what this post is all about. I just completed a series on community , and I believe that our churches must start working toward some kind of money pool to help fellow congregants who fall on hard times. With so many families' money highly leveraged, and the reality that the middle class is fighting a losing battle against rising costs, something needs to be done on a macro level to fix some of the financial injustices people face today.
But the pulpit is silent. Sure, you'll hear about Ron Blue or Crown Financial stuff from time to time, but they only address individual issues. Who in the Church in America speaks out against the real problem, our broken system?
Sure, we Americans spend too much of our incomes. But if the middle class continues to erode, it won't be a matter of spending too much on a consumeristic lifestyle. The real problem will be how to cope when curtailing excess spending simply won't halt the slide. You can shave expenses down to the bone, but when the bone's gone missing…
All it takes is a minor recession, I think. Or Ford or GM collapsing. With so many precariously perched families with no savings, high credit card debt, loans taken against homes of decreasing value—it won't take much.
Church, are we ready? Truly?
Time to wake up and start preparing for that day. It's coming faster than we think.
UPDATE: I only got to see this last Saturday's Wall Street Journal late Monday evening. A front page story shows that Democrats running on anti-free-trade, anti-offshoring, and anti-outsourcing platforms crushed their Republican opponents in North Carolina, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. This further proves my theory that middle class voters smarting from job losses and inequities in the economy voted with their wallets, not with an eye toward Iraq, terrorism, or any other topic.
UPDATE II: Some who have read this post knee-jerked and assumed I was a Democrat or some other kind of liberal. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, I consider myself a pure conservative in that I believe in conserving what God values. I hold to many of the ideas espoused in Rod Dreher's book, Crunchy Cons. Also, I have a dim view of most political parties, Republican or Democrat. Both have sold out to special interests and forgotten the average American. Lastly, I firmly believe that politics is not the answer; the Kingdom of God is. The sooner American Christians realize this and start living it, the sooner we'll see many things come to pass that we're now foolishly hoping politics will give us.