In case you haven't noticed, over the past two decades the people in Washington who write the laws have turned your life into a spin of the roulette wheel--actually, an endless series of spins of the wheel that begin with day care and end with retirement (if you can afford it), and affect everything in between. Overall, Washington has structured the game just as any gambling house would, so there are a few winners but a lot more losers.
It's why many of us are falling further behind the harder we work, why our debt dwarfs that of our parents, why some of us receive world-class medical care and others almost none, why some can afford college but for others it has been priced out of reach, and why the wage gap between rich and poor has started growing again. In 1992 the 400 individuals and families with the highest income in the U.S., according to tax returns filed with the IRS, received on average $12.3 million in "salaries and wages."By 2000, the latest year available, that figure had more than doubled, to $29 million.
More significant, in 1992 it took the combined wages of 287,400 retail clerks at, say, Wal-Mart, to equal the pay of the top 400. By 2000 it required the combined pay of 504,600 retail clerks to match the pay of the top 400. That's roughly the equivalent of the folks in Big Piney, Wyo., receiving the same income as all the people in Pittsburgh, Pa., and several of its suburbs.
To be sure, Washington lawmakers, including members of both parties, like to pretend all this is a matter of free will, that people make their choices and then must accept the consequences. But the right choices--going to school, working hard, saving for a down payment--used to offer a reasonable assurance of achieving the American dream. While most of us still have a decent shot at the good life, risk has been introduced into American life--the risk of never getting on track to prosperity, or falling suddenly from it--in ways few Washington policymakers would care to admit.
Through no choice of his own, Donald Campbell, 47, a computer tech-support representative, got to play this game last fall. Campbell had worked in the information-technology field for several Los Angeles--area companies before joining Candle Corp., which makes computer system--monitoring software, 412 years ago. Campbell, who has two grown children and a 7year-old, worked in a call center answering questions about the software. He earned $60,000 a year. Last fall Candle closed the center and transferred the work to India. Says Campbell: "When you take the high-tech industry and send it overseas, where's your economy going? They pay $5,000 to $6,000 a year. How can you compete with that?"
Campbell decided it was time to embark on a new career. He and two colleagues applied for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that Congress enacted in 1974, when manufacturing workers began losing their jobs to imported goods. The idea was that a worker who lost his or her job when cheaper imported goods captured the U.S. market could receive as much as two years of retraining, a cash allowance that picked up after unemployment benefits ran out, and money to cover relocation expenses.