Clarence Fanto: Accentuate positive, face the negative
‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative," according to the classic Johnny Mercer lyrics for the 1944 hit Harold Arlen tune.
President Obama did plenty of that in his report card on the U.S. economy during Tuesday’s State of the Union address -- though he did call for a long-overdue increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. He acknowledged the urgent need for job growth and pointed to deep cracks in the nation’s infrastructure, appealing for passage of a $50 billion "’Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country."
The annual speeches to a joint session of Congress are, by tradition, excessively optimistic, so Obama’s upbeat and downbeat mix was reasonable and appropriate, coming on the heels of several recently released studies that demonstrate the harsh reality facing half of the country who survive on income below the national median. In Berkshire County, the U.S. Census has reported, the median income for a household is $48,705. Folks somewhat above that level aren’t whistling a happy tune, either.
Full-time jobs with benefits remain elusive, as a Rutgers University survey reported. The main findings: Nearly one out every four Americans suffered a layoff during the past five years, while nearly 8 in 10 cited family members or close friends who have lost jobs.
As Cliff Zukin, a public policy and political science professor who co-authored of the Rutgers study, put it: "This to me is why the recession was so all-consuming and is likely to influence the American psyche. Almost everyone, four out of five, were directly or one step removed from unemployment and all that goes with it financially, socially, psychologically."
Looking for signs of hope, the report found few. On the contrary, a majority of people surveyed think it will take six years or more before the economy regains its pre-recession standing; 30 percent believe there will never be a full recovery.
Of the workers laid off during the Great Recession, nearly 25 percent are still unemployed; two-thirds of those 55 and older were jobless for more than a year or still remain so. Even half of those who did find work took a demotion and a steep pay cut.
Nearly half of Americans with college degrees are in jobs that didn’t require higher education, a separate study by the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity revealed recently. Ohio University economist and founder of the center Richard Vedder describes it as "almost the new normal."
"There are going to be an awful lot of disappointed people," he went on, noting that Labor Department statistics showed that 25 percent of retail sales clerks had bachelor’s degrees in 2010, as did 15 percent of taxi drivers and 5 percent of janitors.
Nonetheless, for many graduates a college degree remains a good investment, apart from its educational, cultural and social value, since income for people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree averaged just short of $60,000 a year in 2011, compared to $32,000 for high school graduates with no college.
"There’s a lot of people going to college, most of them with expectations that upon graduation they will make a pretty good living and live sort of an upper middle-class American life," Vedder told Scott Simon on NPR’s "Weekend Edition."
"But instead, a lot of them are getting jobs upon graduation working as bartenders, taxi drivers -- a million of them are retail sales clerks, 115,000 of them are janitors. They’re getting jobs that I’m fairly certain are less than what they’re expected when they began the college experience."
The problem is that categories adding jobs -- retail sales, for example -- don’t require college, nor do home health aides, truck drivers, plumbers or electricians. College grads with liberal arts degrees are particularly hard-pressed to land work in their specialties.
A delicate question was posed to Vedder, a semi-retired, tenured professor -- is college a potential waste of money?
In a notably candid response, he acknowledged that "there are risks in anything one does in life and any kind of investment one makes in life. And colleges are subject to the same kind of risks that investing in, say, stocks and bonds. Part of the risk, of course, is that 45 percent of those who enter college don’t graduate within six years."
Vedder also pointed out that students who think a social-work major can lead to a "fancy job and life in an upper middle-class suburb are perhaps living a life that’s devoid of much reality these days. I don’t tell them not to go to college, but I tell them there are risks associated with it and be cautious about piling up a lot of debt."
The takeaway from these studies?
Locally, vocational education urgently needs expansion in Pittsfield as a magnet program for central and south Berkshire.
Nationally, the obsession with deficit-reduction (mostly by Republicans) is exactly the wrong response to our economic travails. The correct response is to spend judiciously on programs that will help employers create more jobs and will fuel economic growth, the best prescription for reducing the national debt.
Most of Mr. Obama’s proposals address that need and should be passed by Congress, as he likes to say, "right now."
Will that happen? Only Pollyanna would dare sing "Accentuate the Positive."
Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle
contributor, can be reached at
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