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Economy & Business

At issue: As economy lumbers on, voters skeptical of campaign rhetoric about middle class

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2012 - To paraphrase that familiar and now well-worn political mantra: It’s the slow-growth economy, stupid.

While the latest jobs report or foreclosure numbers can instantly spur presidential campaign rhetoric from Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney over who is better qualified to create jobs or save the middle class, today’s economic headlines might have little sway over voters who have already made up their minds based on all the yesterdays they’ve experienced since the nation’s financial crisis of 2008.

These voters say the economy matters, but the issues go much deeper than the latest round of statistics.

That slow-growth economy: Not feeling it

Longtime St. Louis labor analyst Russ Signorino has been taking in all the election-year talk about jobs with a skeptical ear.

"Especially over the past month or so when I’m listening to all this debate about the economy, I’m thinking it’s not going to make any difference at this point. There may be other issues out there that may sway a few votes, but the economy? I think people are set,’’ said Signorino, now the executive director of the nonprofit Gateway EITC Community Coalition that does free tax preparation for low- and moderate-income families.

"Even if there was a dramatic improvement in the economic numbers between now and the elections, the people who were going to vote one way are going to say, 'OK. That’s what we thought.’ And they’re still going to vote that way. And the people who were going to vote the other way are going to say, 'Oh, they’re making that stuff up.’ ’’

In a slow-growth economy, the change is often not perceptible, Signorino said.

"People just don’t feel it. You might see a little of it if you are fortunate to be working someplace where they are hiring a few people now and then, but for most individuals the improvement is hard to feel,’’ he said.

Signorino believes that employment is in step with a slow-growing economy that has stabilized but is vulnerable to major shocks. One such "shock” could be the across-the-board earnings tax increases scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

"That could really hurt the economy and the labor market,’’ he said. "But right now things are improving slowly. We’re hearing again about retailers having temporary jobs during the holiday season, which is good. You hadn’t heard that for years.’’

Signorino says the St. Louis region is still coming to grips with changing times -- automation and globalization -- that have diminished the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector. There just aren’t as many workers to be recalled to jobs after an economic downturn.

"Another factor is the housing market that has not come back to where it was before, and there’s a good chance it may never come back to where it was before,’’ he said. "The number of young people who would be looking for new homes is not going to be as great over the next few years as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The housing industry will also improve, except it’s not going to be that very steep acceleration that you had in the past.’’

Signorino says that recent growth in the service industry sector, particularly in health care and financial services, have been important, but they lack the "multiplier” effect that the auto industry has on a regional economy. At its height, before the Chrysler and Ford plants closed, the auto industry employed about 30,000 workers in the region. That figure has been cut by about 90 percent; GM currently employs about 2,000 workers at its Wentzville plant but is adding jobs.

Signorino believes it would take something major between now and the first part of November to change voters’ minds on that issue.

"Even if somebody has been unemployed for a while and they found a job in the next few weeks, I really don’t think that’s going to change their minds about who they’re going to vote for,’’ he said. "You could say you’re going to create so many millions of jobs over the next four years, but when it comes to me deciding who I’m going to vote for, the biggest determining factor is where I am now.’’

Wanted: More specifics

Ashley Weber of St. Louis said she is looking at economic issues that affect her personal financial future. She is waiting to hear a plan that would guarantee that Social Security will be there for her when she retires, and she is frustrated that candidates -- no matter their party affiliation -- take the topic off the table.

"I’m 32 and have a long way to go before I retire,’’ she said. “I worry that I am making a generational transfer. I feel that the likelihood that I will ever see that money is very small. So that’s very frustrating to me, and it’s frustrating to me that my generation is not the most politically active group and there are a lot more older people who are politically active who are, of course, going to continue fighting for their benefits. It’s very frustrating to me that candidates immediately say that Social Security reform is off the table to pander to older voters. And nothing ever gets done with it. I’m disappointed in both candidates.’’

Weber, who is single and works in the banking industry, says she tends to be politically conservative and voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. When Weber, a member of the Public Insight Network, agreed to be interviewed for this story, she said she decided to do her homework on both Obama and Romney -- a task she would normally leave until election week. She said she is now less certain about whom she will support for president. She went to both the Obama and Romney websites to read the candidates’ platforms. She would suggest to both candidates that they improve their websites because younger Americans tend to rely on the internet for information.

Weber felt that the Romney website offered more details, including a five-point action plan produced by experts at Columbia, Harvard and Stanford universities.

“I thought it offered more substance, and I thought it would be good for Obama to do something similar,’’ she said.

But Weber said that delving deeper into the candidates’ platforms, raised questions.

“When I started this exercise I was firmly voting for Romney/Ryan. I’m not really sure why other than I appreciate their pro-growth message, but there are definitely questions,’’ she said.

For example, she wants Romney to be more specific about how he would reduce the national deficit.

Weber noted that she has been fortunate to have a good job during the recession, but she has been affected by the housing market decline. She bought her home at the height of the housing bubble in 2005 and declining property values had put her mortgage “underwater.” She had taken advantage of the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP),  backed by the Obama administration, to reduce her monthly mortgage payments by $200.

Asked if that was enough for her to reconsider voting for Obama, Weber replied, "No.’’



Weber said that because she works in the banking industry she is interested in any discussion about regulation that could impact the industry.

"Banking is a highly regulated industry. I don’t know if I would advocate for more or less,’’ she said. "What is difficult is the uncertainty. And that’s not just for banks but for any industry. Uncertainty can lead to difficulty in making decisions and knowing where we’re headed and knowing the impact and how it will affect our individual business lines.’’

Weber said political candidates need to be more specific.

"For the most part the candidates are all saying the same thing,’’ she said. "Romney and Obama aren’t really saying anything that different in their campaign speeches: ‘We want to grow the economy. We want to promote jobs. We want to not tax the middle class.’ There’s not a lot different here. It’s very difficult to weave through the talking points to get to the real data and be able to say which of these candidates has my best interests.’’

Too much focus on the middle class?

With the political candidates so focused on the middle class, no one is talking about the economic struggles of the poor and the working class, says Jason Purnell, an assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University.

“The most vulnerable groups in this county aren’t being discussed in this election,’’ Purnell said. “Most of the rhetoric is being directed at the middle class, which I think is a problem.’’

Purnell thinks the response to Romney’s comments about the "dependent” 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes focused on explaining why certain groups were unfairly labeled as dependent but ignored a vital underlying question: why a growing number of people rely on the federal government for basic subsistence.

Purnell said that he looked at the websites of both Romney and Obama and found no explicit mentions of poverty.

"The president has at least made some comments with regard to not just the middle class but helping people to gain middle-class status, and I think a number of his policies, though not explicitly stated as poverty alleviation, have had the effect of ameliorating poverty,’’ he said.

"With Romney, it’s hard to know what exactly the plans are other than repealing the Affordable Care Act. I think that’s the one policy goal we have from Gov. Romney, which would exacerbate the lack of access to health care for people who are poor or near poor. We can only extrapolate from [Republican vice presidential candidate] Congressman [Paul] Ryan’s budget that there are going to be severe cuts to social programs,’’ he said.

Purnell said he voted for Obama in 2008 and has continued to support him.

“But that doesn’t stop me from being critical of a lack of discussion around the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in the country, and I would note that I understand politically why that’s not popular. Why that’s not a strategy,” Purnell said. “There’s been a concession going back to [President] Bill Clinton and the welfare reform of the 1990s that the Great Society didn’t work, and it hasn’t been replaced in my mind with a serious discussion about what we do about lingering inequality in this country."

Purnell said the U.S. has a history of designating who the deserving poor are and who among the poor are responsible for their own lot in life.

"And there is a strain of that tradition that resists looking at any systemic reason for poverty and placing the onus entirely on individuals and personal responsibility,’’ Purnell said. “I don’t think it’s controversial or new to suggest that the politics of poverty have also been racialized in this country. And that’s been used as a wedge that very often ends up with people not voting on their economic interests but based on some other ideology.’’

Purnell said that Obama has for political reasons treated the issue very gingerly.

"I think we have an opportunity to have a conversation in this country about how to help all of our citizens succeed and that the politics around this has to be more sophisticated than just making it a moral argument,’’ he said. "There is also an economic argument to be made for maintaining competitiveness globally but also maintaining a standard of living in terms of retirees being able to collect Social Security and having a viable economy going forward. We can’t continue to write off entire generations of children as not contributing to that larger goal.’’

Purnell believes that Obama will continue to find support among the economically disadvantaged.

"The polling I’m reading suggests that more people trust him to identify with their economic concerns and issues. I haven’t made a comparison of that polling to 2008 but that would seem to be one of the strengths that he’s got in this campaign. Do I think that there’s the same enthusiasm as 2008? No. But I didn’t think that was sustainable and I don’t think he did either,’’ Purnell said.

'I’m so tired of the political fear'

Robert Rossfeld, 33, of St. Louis who is married and the father of a 6-week-old baby girl, says the economy is important, but his overriding concern is about leadership.

"To me, any plan is OK as long as we’re deliberately moving along a set course to get there. I want to see some bold leadership moves in the country and a direction: These are the opportunities we want to create,’’ Rossfeld said. "I’m a moderate kind of policy-oriented type. I don’t get much into the dogma of either party. I’m down the middle as far as philosophy.’’

Rossfeld, a former Army captain who served in Iraq, said he is favoring Romney. He said Obama might have great ideas but nothing will be accomplished if he cannot influence Congress.

"My big hang-up issue is the inability of the Congress to work together and pass legislation that’s done anything for the country,’’ Rossfeld said. "My take on that is the president has been unable to lead the Congress in any particular direction, and to me that’s evidenced by the partisan bickering and political fear that plays out. And I’m so tired of the political fear.’’

Rossfeld said he experienced the effects of political gridlock during a showdown over the federal budget when paychecks were issued to the military that said “no pay due” for the next payday.

"Wherever that came from I don’t know, but I was in command at that time and it was incredibly disruptive,’’ he said. "We had to do a lot of consequence management to try to keep things under control and to remind soldiers, ‘Hey, you’re going to work whether this happens or not.’ ‘’

Rossfeld believes it’s the president’s job to overcome philosophical differences for the benefit of the country.

"It’s what I had to do when I was a company commander,’’ he said. "If my organization was being ineffective, I couldn’t blame it on a dispute between some of my subordinates. I couldn’t blame whatever problems that existed in my organization on the person who was in command before me. It didn’t matter what was inherited. What mattered is that now I better find a way to solve the problem because it’s my problem.’’

Rossfeld left the Army about a year ago and now works for a company that manages environmental cleanup projects. He said he would like to hear both candidates speak more specifically about their plans for bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.

"I just want our guys to come home,’’ he said. "It makes me heartsick hearing the stories about what’s going on over there, especially the insider attacks. We’re not getting the word out about whatever measures of success we’re achieving over there.”

Rossfeld cites the lack of progress in Afghanistan and the ineffective partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan.

"I watch the news and I see the honor roll on PBS every night, and what the hell are we doing? What the hell are we accomplishing? I don’t want to think it’s in vain because no life ever should be,” he said.

Rossfeld said he will be listening for the candidates to discuss Afghanistan in their foreign policy debate. But that isn’t driving his voting decision because he believes both candidates will probably do the same thing: stay the course for two years.

"Neither one of them is saying anything. What they say on their websites and their policy positions is essentially the same thing: We need to draw to a responsible end,” he said.

Where are we now?

The latest economic headlines suggest continued slow growth:

* The Federal Reserve reported Wednesday that economic activity increased at a "moderate pace” in the Eighth District, which includes St. Louis. A plus: Home sales in St. Louis were up 17 percent over August 2011.

* The national foreclosure rate in September fell to its lowest since July 2007, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing firm. Foreclosure filings, including default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions, were reported on 180,427 U.S. properties in September, down 7 percent from August and down 16 percent from September 2011. In this area, the September foreclosure rate decreased by 22 percent from August.

* The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits in September dropped by 339,000 -- the lowest level since 2008, said the U.S. Department of Labor. This came on the heels of last week’s announcement that the nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent from 8.1 in August, the first time since January 2009 that the rate was below 8 percent. Unemployment in August was 7.2 percent in Missouri, 9.1 percent in Illinois and 7.8 percent for the region.

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