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(Graphic of "a handy map showing how far median incomes have dropped over the past six years" from The Washington Monthly, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.)

In the 2004 election cycle, one of the most effective stump speech segments that I heard came from John Edwards — the story of he and his parents sat at their kitchen table talking about the family budget and education and the issues that mattered to their hearth and home.  And that feeling that, increasingly, there are two Americas, and those that have were lengthening the distance between those that have increasingly less and less.  (A version of that was given at the Democratic National Convention, but it was a much more effective speech in person, primarily because Edwards is amazing on the stump and can work an audience very well.)

His speech resonated with me for a number of reasons, but most of all because I can remember doing this with my own family growing up.  My folks and I would talk about the budget and what we could and could not afford for me to do — how much money I would have to earn on my own to pay for dance or piano lessons, or for extras for band or some other activity, how much babysitting I’d have to do to make my target for saving for college, whether we could afford to take a vacation that summer, how we were going to afford my dad going back to school to advance at work, and so many other things through the years.

I learned early in my lifetime that even though my own family was better off than a lot of other folks in our larger family tree, we were by no means wealthy in the greater scheme of things.  And that the value of a dollar, both for immediate and future uses, needed to be respected and often stretched six ways to Sunday. 

A lot of families in America today are doing just that…and still coming up shorter and shorter as energy prices keep edging upward, along with credit card rates and mortgage rates, and with grocery prices heading up as well due to the cost of shipping and fuel going up for farmers and transport companies alike, and all of that passed on to consumers in some form.  As the chart above shows, median income is dropping across the board in a lot of areas…which doesn’t leave a whole lot at the end of the month for most folks these days.

For the 2006 elections, the economic reality for a large segment of the population may play a large part in the voting trend — and that does not bode well for incumbants, the majority of whom in both houses of Congress are Republicans.  According to the WaPo:

…Polls show that swing voters — the category that candidates most want to attract — are unhappier than the rest of the population about their economic circumstances. According to a recent survey by Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times, six in 10 self-described independents said the economy was doing badly, and seven in 10 said the country was on the wrong track. A Fox News poll, taken at the end of last month, showed that 23 percent of Americans consider the economy the most important factor they will weigh when they cast their ballot in November — more than those who cited Iraq (14 percent) or terrorism (12 percent).

And a recent poll conducted for the AFL-CIO by the Democratic Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group found that 55 percent of voters said their income was not keeping up with inflation, and that the economy was a more effective campaign theme against Republicans than either the war or corruption. This rings true to many Republican strategists and their allies: Despite the unpopularity of the president’s Iraq policies, Bush’s approval rating is higher among voters who see the war and national security as the top issues in November than it is among voters who rate the economy as their top issue, according to one veteran GOP pollster worried about his party’s prospects this fall.

Republicans have approached the problem partly as a matter of perception. Eager to frame the issue for the fall, Bush recently met with economic advisers at Camp David and later announced that the economy is "solid and strong" and "creating real benefits for American workers and families and entrepreneurs." The gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced, has slowed a bit since the beginning of the year but is still growing at a respectable annual rate of 2.9 percent. And the unemployment rate is near its five-year low.

But the sour mood is not simply a matter of psychology. Since 2003, the inflation-adjusted median hourly wage of most workers has fallen by 2 percent, according to the Labor Department. And this summer marked the first time since 1991 that the annual inflation rate exceeded 4 percent for three consecutive months, driven partly by $3-per-gallon gasoline.

Then there is debt. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Board, the ratio of financial obligations — primarily mortgage and consumer debt — to disposable personal income rose to a modern record of 18.7 percent earlier this year. The amount of mortgage debt alone has more than doubled since 2000, to nearly $9 trillion. And in July, for the 16th consecutive month, consumers in the aggregate spent all of their disposable income and dipped into savings or borrowed to finance the things they bought.

Among the most exposed are those who bought into one of the great fads in mortgage lending in recent years — adjustable rates. Next year, $1 trillion worth of adjustable-rate mortgages — about 11 percent of all outstanding mortgage debt — is scheduled to readjust to a higher interest rate for the first time, according to LoanPerformance, a research company. This will come after more than $400 billion of readjustments this year. That means millions of homeowners will either have to refinance or shoulder an increase of perhaps 25 percent in their monthly payments.

The political implications of these trends are obvious. "A large number of voters have a definite foreboding about the economy, and that isn’t good news for incumbents," said Gregory S. Casey, chief executive of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, a nonpartisan electoral analysis organization. "They feel disappointed in government institutions that they think have let them down."

"Republicans are worried," added R. Bruce Josten, an executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a significant backer of pro-business — and therefore predominantly Republican — congressional candidates. "You have a portion of the middle class that doesn’t believe it’s benefiting from good economic news, and, in fact, it’s not. . . . All the blame doesn’t go to Congress, but voters are going to take it out on Congress anyway."…

President Rose-Colored-Glasses can talk about how great the economy is doing all he wants, but the bottom line for a lot of American families is that they simply cannot afford the GOP Rubber Stamping of failed Bush Administration policies any longer.

That’s the kitchen table reality for a whole lot of folks in America who sit down to pay their bills every month, and wonder why if they have to balance their checkbook and account for whatever mistakes they have made that the Bush Administration and the GOP Congress expect to be able to deficit spend with no accountability whatsoever.  And how the Bush Administration can continue pouring money into Iraq without any meaningful oversight from their rubber-stamping Republican cronies in Congress — and what that means for this nation of ours in the long run.

Take a peek at the article in the Detroit Free Press from which the above graphic was pulled:

In a dramatic sign of its ailing economy, Michigan’s household income dropped, more children joined the ranks of poor people and the number of people living below the poverty level jumped in the suburbs, according to census figures released Tuesday.

The figures show Michigan’s median household income fell more than any other state’s during the last six years. It was $46,039 in 2005 — 12% less than what it was in 1999 when adjusted for inflation. None of the 28 counties and 21 municipalities for which data were reported showed a rise in median household income between 1999 and 2005, the estimates show.

And that’s just for starters. This snapshot of Michigan is something that folks all over the United States are seeing in their communities as well.  One of the biggest concerns in my mind is that of children who are, in increasing numbers, living in families below the poverty line, with a social safety net that is less and less able to do anything to help under increasingly strained budgets.

Every decision we make with regard to an allocation of American tax dollars means that somewhere else down the line there will be cuts.  We need to take a long, hard look at our national priorities — for the long haul, not just for the "short term band-aid get me through to the next election cycle" quick fix that Congress has been doing the last six years. 

I spent a great deal of my professional career working with at risk children and families in abuse and neglect cases, primarily as an advocate for the children’s rights and in prosecuting cases of severe abuse and neglect.  You can make an enormous difference in a child’s life with adequate care, social services intervention, mental health intervention, etc. — because if you do nothing, you risk the child becoming yet another wave in a cycle of abused child to juvenile delinquent to adult criminal to child abuser, which I saw far too frequently among families where multiple generations were in the criminal justice system at the same time.  And that is just one area where a bit more investment on the front end could pay enormous dividends to all of us over the long term.

There is a growing sense of unease in the nation at the moment — and it crosses party and economic lines as far as I have seen — that common sense and long-term thinking are being sacrificed in the alter of maintaining short-term power.  And people have had enough.  I know I have.  And when I see something like this (via WaPo), it just reaffirms my disgust and irritation:

U.S. lawmakers return to work on Tuesday from a month-long recess with time running out for Republicans to pass legislation, impress unhappy voters and retain control of Congress in the November 7 elections.

Congress is set to recess on October 6. But with Republicans so concerned about losing power, their leaders may break a week early to give them more time to go home to campaign.

It’s no wonder people in America are disgusted and pissed off with the Republicans who control Congress — and set both its agenda and it’s little-to-no-work schedule – they are hardly doing any work, and they expect the rest of us to keep doing more with less, and vote them back into office anyway. Well, hell no! 

Back in January, I did a post talking about some of the values that I think are winning issues for Democrats going into the elections this Fall, and this post is a first installment of my promise to talk more about those issues as we head into the election crunch time.

There is a great line in The American President, where the Michael Douglas character talks about being so busy worrying about keeping his job that he has forgotten to do his job — I’d say that sums up the do-nothing rubber stamp GOP Congress to a "T" (as in terrible), wouldn’t you?  Had enough?

(H/T to looseheadprop for the heads up on The Washington Monthly link.  Thanks much!)