By David Kusnet

RIGHT AFTER A RECENT announcement of favorable unemployment statistics, David Wyss of the economic consulting firm Data Resources, Inc., exclaimed, "George Bush ought to be running over to kiss the people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics."

Financial analyst Wyss went on to offer this political analysis: "People vote their pocketbooks, and right now their pocketbooks look pretty full." He offered the conventional wisdom: economic issues benefit the party in office when unemployment is low.

But this may be the year when the conventional wisdom is rewritten--or, at least, that's what the Democrats are betting on. Twelve years ago, Jimmy Carter coined a new phrase--and contributed a new concept to political analysis--when he attacked the Nixon and Ford administrations for raising the "misery index," which he defined as the combined total of the inflation and unemployment rates. This year, the "misery index" is comfortably low, but another factor may be at work: an "anxiety index," reflecting voters' concerns about the economic future.

"Flipping Hamburgers"
For the major Democratic presidential contenders, a cornerstone of their political strategy is the view that America has been replacing well-paying jobs with low-paying ones, that the living standards of middle class workers are declining, and that voters, therefore, are concerned with the quality, as well as the quantity, of jobs available.

The most vivid expression of this view has come from Jesse Jackson, who has attacked the "economic violence" inflicted upon workers who have lost their jobs in industries like auto and steel and have been forced to accept lower-paying jobs in service industries.

This issue was also stressed by former presidential contender Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who scored points with it early in the primary season.

Gephardt's stump speech included this warning: "We're trading in good jobs for not so good jobs; $12 and $15-an-hour jobs for $3 and $4-an-hour jobs. The middle class is shrinking."

As the marathon race for the nomination moved into the industrial states, Michael Dukakis began proclaiming, "We're not going to accept an America where all we do is flip each others' hamburgers and take in each others' cleaning," and began addressing the problems of workers who had been pushed out of well-paying jobs. From the very beginning of the primary season, however, Dukakis had shown a rhetorical sensitivity to the issue, promising not just "decent jobs" but decent jobs at decent wages.

Economic Anxieties Growing
This Democratic rhetoric reflects the fact that, despite relatively favorable unemployment and inflation statistics, Americans' economic anxieties are growing, as indicated by a recent survey by USA Today and Cable News Network which found that Americans, by 41 to 37 percent, think today's children will fare worse than their parents. Even more pessimism was uncovered by a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, which found 45 percent of the voters expect the economy to get worse, compared to only 18 percent who said it will get better.

And, despite the traditional view that jobs are not an issue when joblessness is low, these anxieties may be prompted not only by the budget deficit, the trade deficit and the stock market crash but also by tangible changes in the kinds of jobs available today.

Yes, unemployment is at its lowest rate since 1979, and the current level is less than half the post-Depression high of 11.4 percent, reached during the 1981-1982 recession. But, when it comes to America's economic condition, the concern is not only, "Do I have a job today?" but, "What kind of jobs will be available in America 10 years from now?"

For uneasy voters, qualms about the economic future are grounded in the realities of the job market. For the past decade, most new jobs have been in the service sector, where average pay is below $14,000 a year. Meanwhile, in the manufacturing sector, where average pay is over $20,000, millions of jobs have been lost, including a staggering 60 percent of steelworkers' jobs, one-sixth of auto workers' jobs, and hundreds of thousands more in industries from textiles and apparel to electrical parts.

Rustbelt Blues
A wrenching economic transformation in the nation's third largest city--Chicago--exemplifies what has happened throughout the industrial belt of the Midwest and Northeast. In 1970, Chicago had nearly 9,000 factories employing 450,000 people; by last year, there were only 5,000 factories with fewer than 200,000 workers.

The decline in what had been the center of America's industrial heartland has prompted blue-collar workers to return to the Democratic Party. For instance, Joe Ferrier, a 57-year-old electrician interviewed during the Illinois primary campaign, explained: "I'm voting Democratic because there's no industry left in Cicero." Cicero, significantly, is a virtually all-white Chicago suburb that has voted Republican in recent elections.

Of the new jobs created during the 1980s, too many offer low wages, low benefits, and limited futures. According to a recent study by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, of the nearly eight million jobs created between 1979 and 1984 nearly three- fifths pay less than $7,000 a year in 1984 dollars. Such jobs often do not provide even minimal fringe benefits, such as health insurance. Some do not even offer 40 hours' wages, and more than five million "involuntary part-time" workers are officially classified as employed although they would rather work full time.

Part-Time Job Ghetto
Part-timers, in particular, are an increasing--and increasingly exploited--part of the labor force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 1980s have seen a 53 percent increase in the number of part-time workers who would rather work full time. Unlike full-time employees, part-timers usually do not receive fringe benefits, and the growth in the part-time work force has contributed to the 15 percent growth since 1982 in the number of workers without health insurance.

Meanwhile, as in the past, unemployment figures are also deceptively cheerful because they exclude potential workers who have given up entirely on finding jobs. At the end of 1987, there were more than 910,000 "discouraged workers" who had dropped out of the job market and an additional 1.4 million people who could not look for work because of ill health or lack of child care.

The down-scaling of the job market hurts not only young people who are just beginning their careers but also older workers who have lost well-paying industrial jobs. While many of these workers have found new jobs, 45 percent took pay cuts, and two- thirds earn less than 80 percent of their former income, according to a study by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

A grim picture of the displaced workers--mostly men from the Midwest or Northeast--emerged from the congressional study:

  • Forty-three percent were unemployed for at least 27 weeks, and 24 percent were jobless a year or longer.
  • Sixty percent found new jobs, but for blacks that figure was only 42 percent.
  • These job dislocations created additional hardships for more than two million women--mostly the wives of industrial workers who lost their jobs. These women were forced to support themselves and their families because of their husbands' joblessness.

The View from the Heartland
One community scarred by these personal tragedies is LaPorte, Indiana, a city of 22,000 that suffered the loss of its two largest employers, an Allis-Chalmers farm equipment plant and an American Home Products factory, which made Chef Boy-Ar-Dee foods. Unemployment jumped to 20 percent during the recession of the early 1980s; now, most of the displaced workers have found new work, but these positions do not pay as well as their old jobs.

Former Allis-Chalmers machinist Steven Werner, who has helped his co-workers find new jobs, told a reporter: "What really gets me is when you pick up the paper and read about all these new jobs. Then you go down the street and you find out the job quality isn't there."

A former steelworker, Jerry Yacullo, said: "The big money days are over. There's lots of $3.50-an-hour security guard jobs out there, but who can live on that?"

For Americans who have lived the experiences described in these official government reports, the future does not look as rosy as the unemployment figures. Their cynicism about political and business leaders may only be magnified by front-page coverage of optimistic employment statistics.

As the 1988 campaign continues, the academic debate among economists and statisticians about the changing face of employment may become a central issue in political debate.

According to Professor Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts, who has conducted extensive interviews of "swing voters" throughout the country: "They believe lifetime job security is a thing of the past. They can call the roll of uncles and fathers and a few aunts who had 25 to 30 years in a manufacturing job and lost it nonetheless. You don't have to prompt these people; you can just sit in their living room and listen, and they will volunteer to you that we are changing from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. That kind of notion that was at first being developed by elite observers ... is now something that people talk about over their kitchen table."

To be sure, economic anxieties are nowhere near universal within the electorate, nor does the experience of displaced industrial workers and their families resonate throughout the entire work force. For prosperous communities and for those who are thriving in the high tech and service sectors, rhetoric about "America in decline" rings as hollow as "morning in America" speechmaking in the Rust Belt, the Farm Belt, or the inner city. For Democrats, for unionists and for other progressives, the challenge is to appeal not only to those injured or made anxious by economic conditions but also those who remain comfortable and confident. This November, barring an economic collapse, they will face a Republican Party pointing to the unemployment and inflation rates as evidence that the economy is basically sound.

Six months before the elections the Republicans are hoping these economic statistics stay favorable. And the Democrats are betting enough voters are anxious enough about the future that politicians who claim the unemployment figures are as good as they look will end up on the unemployment line themselves.

David Kusnet was a speechwriter for Walter Mondale and for Jerry Wurf, the late president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He directed publicity in AFSCME's organizing campaigns