08/30/2006 06:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Extreme Poverty is US: And Thanks for Nothing, Wal-Mart


The New York Times headlines this story: "Census Reports Slight Increase in '05 Incomes."

This is, in every meaningful sense, misleading. You have to get to paragraph four to learn that "While the economy has been strong by most statistical measures for the past several years, its benefits have not translated into improvements in the standard of living for many people. In New York, the proportion of city residents living below the poverty level has not changed in the last five years. Nationally, the small uptick in median household income reported yesterday, 1.1 percent, was not enough to offset a longer-term drop in median household income -- the annual income at which half of the country's households make more and half make less."

So if the median household income is falling, what difference does a "slight increase in 05 incomes" make?  The story goes on to explain, "That figure fell 5.9 percent between the 2000 census and 2005, to $46,242 from $49,133, according to an analysis of the data conducted for The New York Times by the sociology department of Queens College. The difference was so sharp, in part, because the 2000 census measured 1999 income, which was at the height of the dot-com bubble."

Moreover, "the new data also showed continuing erosion in the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance. In 2005, an estimated 46.6 million people had no coverage, up 1.3 million since 2004 and increasing the percentage of Americans without health coverage from 15.6 percent of the population to 15.9 percent. After recent decreases in the numbers of children without health insurance, this year's data found that their numbers grew between 2004 and 2005, rising from 10.8 percent of those under 18 to 11.2 percent."

Again, moreover, "although the numbers living below the poverty line held steady between 2004 and 2005, there has been a sharp increase in those living in extreme poverty."

Naturally the Bush administration, which cares only about the extremely wealthy, will try to spin this as they did their egregious tax cut program. This morning they got some help from the New York Times headline writers. 

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson, hardly surprisingly, offers a useful perspective. "Ours is the age of the Great Upward Redistribution. The median hourly wage for Americans has declined by 2 percent since 2003, though productivity has been rising handsomely. Last year, according to figures released just yesterday by the Census Bureau, wages for men declined by 1.8 percent and for women by 1.3 percent. As a remarkable story by Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt in Monday's New York Times makes abundantly clear, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of gross domestic product since 1947, when the government began measuring such things. Corporate profits, by contrast, have risen to their highest share of the GDP since the mid-'60s -- a gain that has come chiefly at the expense of American workers. Don't take my word for it. According to a report by Goldman Sachs economists, "the most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor's share of national income." ...  the declining power of the American workforce antedates the integration of China and India into the global labor pool by several decades.

Since 1973 productivity gains have outpaced median family income by 3 to 1. Clearly, the war of American employers on unions, which began around that time, is also substantially responsible for the decoupling of increased corporate revenue from employees' paychecks. But finger a corporation for exploiting its workers and you're trafficking in class warfare. Of late a number of my fellow pundits have charged that Democratic politicians concerned about the further expansion of Wal-Mart are simply pandering to unions. Wal-Mart offers low prices and jobs to economically depressed communities, they argue. What's wrong with that?

Were that all that Wal-Mart did, of course, the answer would be "nothing." But as business writer Barry Lynn demonstrated in a brilliant essay in the July issue of Harper's, Wal-Mart also exploits its position as the biggest retailer in human history -- 20 percent of all retail transactions in the United States take place at Wal-Marts, Lynn wrote -- to drive down wages and benefits all across the economy. The living standards of supermarket workers have been diminished in the process, but Wal-Mart's reach extends into manufacturing and shipping as well. Thousands of workers have been let go at Kraft, Lynn shows, due to the economies that Wal-Mart forced on the company. Of Wal-Mart's 10 top suppliers in 1994, four have filed bankruptcies....Devaluing labor is the very essence of our economy."

The Mother Jones lie-by-lie timeline is live, at last.

Yes, people like Andrew J. Bacevich are defeatist wimps who hate America, but the fact is this problem has no solution and war can only make it worse.

The Cheney presidency.

George Allen just doesn't like colored--literally--people. Let's see if Virginia prefers a decorated war hero.

Congratulations to Newsweek, for having the sense and foresight to pick Jon Meacham as its new editor in chief. Meacham has many accomplishments, including being not only a famously good editor but also a decent historian. He will best appreciated on this site, however, for his brilliant book reviews.

What's up with Spike Lee? I thought the HBO documentary overly long, but quite powerful and necessary. And we're often saying here how he is at the top of his powers as perhaps America's greatest working director right now. But what kind of guy tells Charlie Rose he used to be a Mets fan and is now a Yankees fan? That's like saying, I used to be a virtuous human being who did not beat my wife, oh never mind. If you haven't had enough of Katrina, or even if you have, try to catch Sundance's documentary "Saving Jazz" on the life and work of Herman Leonard, who lost much of his work and his home in the flood. I collect photography and the first two images I ever bought, I bought in at the Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans, here.

One was a nude Belloc and one was Herman Leonard's photo of Frank Sinatra at Monte Carlo in 1959, which hangs over my staircase in between Nat Fine's Babe Ruth and Lynn Goldsmith's Bruce Springsteen.  Leonard's site is here.  Oh, and kudos to my friends at Nonesuch Records for their $1 million donation, raised through sales of the benefit album Our New Orleans, to Habitat for Humanity International to build homes for musicians in New Orleans. Check out the record here and Habitat, here, though ignore that distasteful photo at the top.

An Item about Fran Drescher, believe it or not: Don't tell Gawker, but I was at a charity celebrity poker tournament last week, and Drescher told me that she plans to go into public service. When I asked what she had in mind, she said that, while it was a long way off, she thought she would enjoy being a senator from New York. Knowing absolutely nothing about Ms. Drescher, save this conversation, I cannot say just how likely she is to achieve her ambition, but my guess would be "not very." But I promise to learn more about her if I turn out to be wrong.