WASHINGTON -- In a vain effort to shift beltway attention away from budgets and deficits to pervasive economic misery, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin held a hearing Thursday to highlight the struggles of the American middle class.
"In the decades after World War II, our economy grew as our middle class flourished," Harkin, one of the Senate's most liberal members, said in his opening statement during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. "In these years, rising worker productivity was met with equally rising incomes."
So much for all that. Since the 1970s, "[r]eal family income has barely budged despite our workforce becoming more productive than ever," Harkin said. "Unions have deteriorated and defined benefit pension plans have all but disappeared. Our manufacturing base has been shipped overseas. Large corporations have put returns for their shareholders and higher pay for their executives over their workers' economic security. Income and wealth inequality are at levels not seen since immediately before the Great Depression."
Having set the stage, Harkin's invited guests testified to the misery of today's workers.
Jared Bernstein, a progressive economist and former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, pointed out that median family income has grown 11 percent since 1979 while the income share of the richest 1 percent has grown 80 percent. Bernstein called the slowdown in middle class wage growth "a key factor behind the middle class squeeze."
Amanda Greubel, a social worker from Iowa, talked about feeding her son cold cereal for dinner several times a week after her work hours had been reduced by the local school district. "We work hard, pay our bills and have no credit card debt," Greubel said. "We waited to have children until we believed that we were emotionally and financially able to do so. We both got graduate degrees to be better at our jobs, make ourselves more marketable and increase our worth as employees. We volunteer, donate to help those in need and vote. We did everything that all the experts said we should do, and yet still we're struggling."
And Susan Sipprelle, creator of a video project documenting the plight of workers older than 50 and unemployed, played a montage of misery from her taped interviews.
"I feel I worked all these years and now I have no health insurance," a woman said in the video.
"I gave up my health insurance –- my family’s health insurance," a man said.
"I got two daughters, one wants to go to college next year." said another man. "I don't know how she's going to pay for it."
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the highest-ranking Republican on the committee -- and the only Republican who showed up for the hearing, which was attended by five Democrats -- said the Obama administration is blocking an economic recovery. (Enzi also criticized Harkin for his choice of witnesses at the hearing: "Today again I see the majority has invited a D.C. economist and a policy advocate filmmaker.")
Enzi's witness, Thomas Clements, owner of a machine shop in Broussard, La., said his business had been devastated by the Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill that started in April 2010.
Prior to starting his small business in 2008, Clements said that he'd lived his life paycheck to paycheck and that his wife had gone through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When his business was thriving in 2009, Clements said, he and his wife thought they'd found the American dream.
"In the past six months, we've received a few small jobs, which were enough to barely keep our business from shutting down," Clements said in his written testimony. "But that status quo is unsustainable. We will be forced to shut our doors permanently unless American energy production resumes in the Gulf. And there are many, many more small businesses in the Gulf that are in the exact same situation as us."