Those with the gold, rule

No, it's not just you. Over the past two years, millions of Americans have been reeling from high joblessness and the collapsing housing bubble.

A comprehensive new analysis of economic data and attitude surveys released last week finds that 93 percent of Americans took a big financial hit over the past 18 months.

Researchers defined that hit as unemployment, a substantial income drop or large new expenses that most often were caused by medical costs or family obligations.

No, it's not just the recession. Over the past 30 years, middle-class families have faced greater insecurity as a result of what Yale University political science professor Jacob Hacker has dubbed the "Great Risk Shift."

That loss of economic security is magnified by the erosion of defined-benefit plans, which makes retirement less secure. Another factor is the rise in the number of "contract employees" who have no job security. That's helped to create unprecedented year-to-year swings in family income.

The new analysis, prepared by Hacker and colleagues at Yale and Ohio State, found that 23 percent of American families experienced an income decline of at least 25 percent between 2008 and 2009. Other studies by Hacker have reported a growing income volatility over the previous 30 years.

Another factor: health insurance changes that shift a greater portion of medical costs onto working families. When serious illness strikes, that can be devastating. Unexpected medical expenses are a factor in about half of all personal bankruptcies.

"Economic insecurity has become the rule, not the exception, for many Americans — even in good times," the new report concludes.

Changes that produced the decline neither were inevitable nor a necessary byproduct of economic freedom.

Many were the result of political decisions, such as deregulation of financial services by Republican and Democratic administrations.

Also tipping the balance was the declining political influence of organized labor as business groups became more aggressive in pressing their economic interests. Their rationale was that everyone benefits when business does. Yet corporate profits reached a record $1.659 trillion during the third quarter of 2010, but unemployment remains high and the economy sluggish.

The cumulative effect of those political choices helped produce a nearly unprecedented concentration of wealth and power.

The richest 20 percent of Americans today collect about half of the nation's wage income and control about 84 percent of all forms of wealth.

Their power is so great that, in order to secure $56 billion to extend unemployment benefits, President Barack Obama cut a deal that provided tax breaks worth about $100 billion for the richest Americans. Also included were reductions in the estate tax that will benefit about 6,600 very wealthy families at a cost of another $14 billion to the rest of us. That's $2 in benefits to the richest Americans for every dollar to laid-off workers.

Simply mentioning those facts provokes a Pavlovian response: "class warfare."

It's not class warfare to note that decisions made by both political parties benefited the wealthiest Americans while undermining millions of middle-class families.

"There is class warfare, all right," billionaire investor Warren Buffett observed not long ago. "But it is my class, the rich class, that's making war. And we're winning."

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