The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Jim Scofield

August 30, 2012

Jim Scofield | GOP’s mission imperils wages and benefits

— Here we go again with the old conservative Republican runabout:  The poor, the unemployed, the struggling in this the worst depression in 70 years just want to be dependent on public handouts. 

They are, this idea goes,  draining the system, dependent upon a minority of the rich and well-off who do the real work and pay the taxes.  

Republican vice-presidential choice Paul Ryan propounds this suspicion of anyone who needs help: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls the poor into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

And Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett believes similarly that unemployment compensation is what keeps people out of work, not lack of jobs: “The jobs are there ... but people are just going to sit there” if we give them unemployment compensation. 

In actuality, fewer than half of the unemployed even get any compensation. A Tribune-Democrat Associated Press article (Aug. 25) notes that “6.1 million people with at least three years on the job were laid off in the three years ending in 2011,” and only slightly more than half found jobs, and more than half of them “took jobs at lower pay.”

Ryan would cut food stamps at this time of national crisis, when poverty rates have risen – 15 percent in general and more than 20 percent for  children. 

Other Republicans would eliminate the school lunch program entirely, and Mitt Romney would unload Medicaid, food stamps (a Department of Agriculture subsidy to farmers, too) and unemployment compensation onto states, which are already way behind in their budgets and support for these. 

Of course, they would cut taxes for the rich and corporations without specifying how to make up these funds.

Republicans are for reducing deficits – in theory – but their presidential administrations have consistently increased them.

We are witnessing a historic shift to cut back wages and benefits. Caterpillar Inc., despite a $4.9 billion profit, won a 6-year pay freeze and benefits cuts from workers. 

Lower-tier workers and new hires make about half of the previous standard hourly wage. The pay of its CEO, though, went up 60 percent. 

Auto companies have also halved wages for new hires to $13 an hour, despite these companies’ recent earnings and the fact that the two major U.S. auto corporations got huge public funding in order to survive.

Massive unemployment has drastically weakened ordinary workers’ position.

Public sphere employees and teachers are losing jobs, seeing real wages cut and their benefits slashed. Their pensions are under attack– we can’t afford them! – though they don’t appear on the average to be that high and that, certainly in Pennsylvania, employees directly fund at least half.

Retirements in this richest country are threatened for most people. Both Republicans, especially, and many Democrats are willing to cut back both Social Security and Medicare, two successful programs that have decently supported seniors and the disabled. 

Columnist William Lloyd’s July 8 piece showed how important Social Security is, how it can easily be continued, and how few workers have a pension plan or especially one that is substantial enough. The newer, retirement 401(k) plans are weak. Before the market crash, one-half of them had less than $45,000, and those near retirement had an inadequate sum of less than $100,000. 

The crash has further depleted these market-based retirement schemes. One 2012 survey showed fewer than 60 percent of Americans had even $25,000 saved for retirement.

Proposals to make people wait longer for Social Security and Medicare are a disgrace.  Americans already work more hours than competitive countries do. We double our per-person productivity every few decades, meaning in our automated society people should be entitled to shorter work careers. 

The main financing problem is that too much of the new wealth we produce increasingly goes to the top. The wealthiest 1 percent now receive a higher percentage of our national income than at any time since the 1920s.

If they pay more of the taxes, it isn’t because their tax rates are now higher. In fact, they are much lower.

We tolerate a higher poverty rate and provide less medical insurance and other supports than do many of our competitors in Europe and elsewhere. Are we to cut these programs further in favor of the upper 1 percent?

Recovery from the Great Depression showed us that at such times we need more government spending, not austerity. Our crisis is not the fault of lower classes without “will and incentive,” but lack of good jobs and pay. 

What the Paul Ryans really want is a cheap, dependent, surplus labor force, one that’s easily exploitable.

  

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is an associate professor emeritus at Pitt-Johnstown.

 

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