Oregon rocked hard by economic tremors

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Even if they’re still employed, most workers have felt the tremors by now; the United States is experiencing an economic earthquake. That’s the message of a report from the national AFL-CIO, which developed an “Economic Richter Scale” to portray the magnitude of the shock.

For comparison’s sake, the labor federation looked at data for all 50 states, and assigned a numerical value to changes over the last three years in six criteria: The unemployment rate; the poverty rate; the bankruptcy rate; the percentage of the population without health insurance; median household income; and the jobs deficit — the number of jobs compared to the number of job seekers.

A rating of 0.0 meant no change.

North Carolina had the worst rating, 9.3, while Montana, the only state that improved overall based on the six criteria, had a rating of -0.7. Oregon’s economic shock was 7.0 on the scale, the sixth worst in the nation. Washington’s rating was 4.4.

In more than 40 states, the total number of unemployed workers is up by at least 20 percent since the end of 2000. Every state but Alaska has had a net loss in manufacturing jobs. In 22 states, poverty has increased. In 34 states, the percentage of uninsured has risen. In 38 states, median household income has declined. Personal bankruptcy filings have jumped in every state except Hawaii.

At the national level, since President George W. Bush took office in January 2001:

• Nearly 3 million private sector jobs have been lost, and the unemployment rate has risen from from 4.1 percent to 6.1 percent;

• The number of Americans without health insurance has risen from 14 to 15.2 percent;

• The poverty rate has climbed to 12.1 percent, meaning three million more Americans are living in poverty; and

• Personal bankruptcy filings have increased by 28 percent, with a record 1.5 million personal bankruptcy filings in 2002.

Though Oregon’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, five other states were deemed in worse shape. In part, that’s because the percentage of uninsured rose in Oregon, but not as quickly as elsewhere in the country. And Oregon’s poverty rate remained the same while other states’ rates grew. Still, the state had a slightly higher rate of personal bankruptcy, greater job losses than most, and relatively large declines in household income.

As depressing as the numbers are, said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, “It will be even more depressing if the Bush Administration and its allies use the jobs issue to their advantage.” In the Nov. 4 election, Nesbitt noted, voters in the State of Washington approved a ballot measure overturning workplace rules protecting workers from ergonomic injuries. Opponents of the protections had argued that the bad economy was due to too many regulations on businesses.

“People can opportunistically exploit the jobs issue,” Nesbitt said. “We have to be out there with a plausible analysis of what’s causing the crisis and how to get out of it.”

Accordingly, along with the “Economic Richter Scale” report, the AFL-CIO outlined proposals to deal with the economic crisis. They included:

• Investments in the nation’s infrastructure;

• Financial assistance to the states;

• Extension of federal emergency unemployment benefits;

• A serious solution to the health care crisis;

• Reversal of flawed trade policies; and

• A raise in the minimum wage.

The Economic Richter Scale report was released Nov. 6, timed to pre-empt the Nov. 7 scheduled release of new employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government report noted that the nation’s payrolls expanded by 126,000 jobs in October, for a total of 286,000 jobs since July, the largest three-month gain since January 2001, sparking hopes for a turnaround after 28 months of continuous job losses.

“We’re about to enter the spin zone on the economic numbers,” Nesbitt said. Nesbitt predicted the Bush Administration would take credit for the recently-created jobs without giving the necessary context that the economy will have to generate 120,000 new jobs a month just to keep up with the growth in the workforce, and that it would take 300,000 new jobs a month for a year to get back to pre-Bush levels of employment.

True to Nesbitt’s prediction, Bush proclaimed in a Nov. 10 speech at a South Carolina BMW factory that the economy is on the rebound — and said it was thanks to his policies, most notably the tax cuts. “The private sector is growing,” Bush told workers at the German-owned auto plant. “Entrepreneurship is vibrant. Over 280,000 new jobs were created over the last three months, and that’s positive, that’s really good. Particularly if you’re somebody looking for work.”

Officially, 8.8 million Americans are looking for work. And as employment numbers improved overall in the last three months, manufacturing continued a net loss of jobs.

“The policies of the Bush Administration have failed working families,” said national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a press statement accompanying the federation’s report. “Bush promised that his tax cuts, which were skewed to the wealthiest Americans, would create 306,000 new jobs nationally each month starting this past June ... As of today, Bush is nearly 1 million jobs short of his promise.”

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