Executive Director Reports

Hang on to your clunkers and fight back

The economy has tanked, and business is slow everywhere, or so we're told.

Well, not quite everywhere.

In fact, business is booming in luxury retail shops, according to the New York Times. Nordstrom has a waiting list for Chanel sequined tweed coats with a $9,010 price. Neiman Marcus has sold out of $775 Christian Louboutin platform pumps. Mercedes Benz said it sold more cars last month in the United States than in any July in five years. The CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, a high-end department store, was quoted in the same article. "We're seeing higher levels of full-priced selling than we saw prerecession."

At the same time, clothing in stores at which most Americans shop is selling at fire-sale prices. And "...some shoppers do not have enough cash on hand to afford multipacks of toilet paper," the Times reported.

On the same day that the Times chronicled the revitalized buying habits of the wealthy, Illinois' own Daily Herald reported on a different kind of boom - the skyrocketing increase in families qualifying for federal foodstamp assistance.

The surge is not, as you might expect, in inner city neighborhoods or impoverished pockets of rural Illinois, but in the relatively affluent suburban communities of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties, where the number of people receiving food stamps has soared by as much as 168 percent.

Many of the folks joining the food stamp rolls have lost their jobs, and though some have found new employment, the job is at a wage level so low they qualify for food stamps - that's an income of less than $2,389 a month for a family of four.

The food-stamp offices are so busy that qualified families have to wait for a month to get the benefits to which they are entitled, because the state has not hired sufficient staff to keep up with the burgeoning caseloads.

You can be sure, though, that the stores on Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Fifth Avenue in New York have plenty of staff to sell their coats, pumps and other luxury items.

This recovery in the expensive- goods market alongside the dramatic increase in food-stamp applications is hardly surprising.

Jobs at the high end have been restored-often with skyhigh salaries. But most newly created jobs are disproportionately at the low end of the wage scale. And those in the middle of the pay scale are disappearing fast, shipped overseas or driven down into low-wage purgatory.

So you can understand why life at the top looks rosy once again, even while more and more hands are grasping to hold on to that lowest rung of the economic ladder.

And when you learn that in the past few years, the average real wage has dropped by 4 percent while corporate profits, which end up in the pockets of those shopping for that hard-to-find Mercedes, have increased by 22 percent in real terms, you begin to understand the boom and bust at the opposite ends of the economy.

You might think that since the folks at the top have recovered from the downturn they'd be satisfied with their outsized piece of the economic pie. You'd be wrong.

While the rich have recaptured their lost wealth, their assault on the economic stability of the middle class continues.

When the big boys call for "entitlement reform," they're talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare, mainstays of retirement and health-care security for middle-class retirees.

And their push for deep cuts to discretionary federal spending will, among other things, limit access to higher education for children in working families who depend on federal loans and grants for the college education now deemed essential for even the most middling of jobs.

At the state and local level, corporate forces continue attacking so-called "Cadillac pensions" in the public sector and "overspending" on our financiallystrapped public schools. Teachers and other public employees are demonized as the parties responsible for the nation's economic woes to divert attention from the profligacy and lawlessness of Wall Street and the banks.

The wealthy elite are perfectly comfortable living in a country where the action is in luxury department stores and food stamp offices.

And unless those of us who have a different vision of what America should look like are as relentless in pursuit of our vision as our opponents are of theirs, we will need to start planning for a very different kind of future than we once imagined.

We need to ask what we want for our families and ourselves, and we have to be willing to stand up and fight to maintain the American dream that we and millions of others have struggled to win.

If there's anyone who thinks it can't happen to you, that you can sit back and wait it out, I invite you to visit any one of the newly busy suburban food-stamp offices and ask the clients there if they thought it could happen to them.

Those of us who think we can somehow catch a lift on a Mercedes are allowing ourselves to be taken for a very dangerous ride.