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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Same old rhetoric still rings hollow

I did not watch the State of the Union.

I figured I could catch up with the speech later and went to the movies instead. I didn’t expect President Barack Obama to say anything that would excite me, or be worth staying home for, and he didn’t. Much like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address earlier this month, the president’s address ran long and covered many bases, but offered little in the way of big ideas or bold vision.

At least Obama acknowledged the mood in the country remains grim and pessimistic, and workers continue to struggle due to a weak economy. That’s more than I can say for Cuomo, who painted a rosy picture of a state on the upswing that seemed totally out of whack with the day-to-day experiences of many New Yorkers.

“Those at the top have never done better,” Obama said, “but average wages have barely budged. … The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all. So our job is to reverse those trends.”

Most Americans are aware of these trends, and have been for years.

If the public holds both Congress and the president in increasingly low esteem, it might be because, six years after the Great Recession, our elected officials still seem surprised and baffled by the extent of the economic damage.

A recent Gallup poll showed nearly two-thirds of Americans are satisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the United States. Perhaps these people are aware that the average median wage has dropped by $4,000 since 2000, or that between 2009 and 2012, 95 percent of economic gains went to the top 1 percent of the population, according to a study from the University of California, Berkeley.

These days, even positive economic news seem to come with a caveat.

Take the decline in unemployment rates reported earlier this week by the New York state Department of Labor. The Capital Region’s unemployment rate dropped nearly 2 full percentage points, from 7.3 percent in December 2012 to 5.4 percent in December 2013. Which sounds great, until you take a closer look at the numbers and realize the number of workers in the local labor force — about 437,000 — is at its lowest since December 2000. This suggests the unemployment rate is dropping because people are leaving the workforce, not because they are finding employment.

Meanwhile, economic forecasts continue to paint a bleak picture, with many economists warning America is facing a long period of slow growth and anemic hourly wage increases.

In light of these ominous trends, Obama’s economic proposals seem like pretty small potatoes to me.
Among other things, the president said he would create a new type of starter savings account, called myRA, to help lower-income people put away money for retirement. He promised to push Congress to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits low-income workers, and called for the creation of six new high-tech manufacturing hubs. His boldest move was to increase the minimum wage for new federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, which he can do through executive order.

I’m all for raising the minimum wage, as I’ve written before, but I have mixed feelings about raising it solely for federal contract workers. On one hand, it will help a lot of people. On the other hand, it will exacerbate a widening gap between private and public sector workers, as public sector workers have generally seen their benefits and wages improve over the past few years, while private sector workers have not.

Of course, the idea is that a rising tide lifts all boats and that eventually businesses will see fit to pay their workers more; in his address, Obama asked employers to “do what you can to raise your employees’ wages.” Sorry, but I don’t foresee the president’s earnest plea leading to a wave of civic-minded employers volunteering to pay low-wage workers more money, at least not when most business leaders and groups remain adamantly opposed to increasing the minimum wage.

If I sound weary, it’s because the economy has been stagnant for quite some time. I keep waiting to hear an idea, be it from Obama or Cuomo or our representatives in Congress, that would actually address the country’s ongoing malaise.

And I have the feeling I’m going to be waiting for quite some time.

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