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Study Corporations Often Blamed for Economic Woes

December 6, 2006
A new report about how typical Americans think about the economy has lessons for liberals, conservatives and corporations.

The report, released Tuesday, December 5, by the Economic Policy Institute research group, says everyday Americans are at once more hopeful yet more concerned about the economy than many pundits portray them. It also finds evidence that corporations or corporate executives often are blamed for difficult economic circumstances.

During a conference call Tuesday, Stan Greenberg, a pollster and contributor to the study, suggested employers view the research as motivation to get on employees’ good side.

"Being part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem, is the message," Greenberg said.

Greenberg did not elaborate on how companies can do that. But there’s evidence firms are increasingly eager to win over employees. The number of companies that apply each year for Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 best American employers has climbed from about 300 in 2001 to more than 450 this year.

During the past several years, conflicting information has emerged about the state of the U.S. economy and its impact on American workers.

The economy has been growing, jobs have been created, and the official unemployment rate has fallen. But gains have been skewed to those at the top, while typical workers have treaded water financially. A recent U.S. Census Bureau study found that real median household income in the United States rose by 1.1 percent from 2004 to 2005, reaching $46,326. But real median earnings of both men and women who worked full time and year round declined.

Meanwhile, workers face the possibility of their jobs being offshored, and are witnessing the erosion of health and retirement benefits.

Typical Americans tend not to see themselves as victims, but they aren’t happy with the direction the economy is taking, according to the new report, titled "Talking Past Each Other: What Everyday Americans Really Think (and Elites Don’t Get) About the Economy."

In one poll cited by the report, respondents by a 2-to-1 margin chose to describe the economy overall as characterized by increasing uncertainty and inequality rather than as one in which "the American dream is very much alive." But of the group that said increasing uncertainty distinguished the economy, 63 percent still thought they would achieve the American dream.

"Americans don’t just think one single thing about the economy," EPI president Lawrence Mishel said during the conference call. "They think several things."

EPI is considered a liberal-leaning think tank. Its new report adds to a national debate about increasing economic insecurity in the United States. There has been concern that business leaders have not played a forceful role in discussions about how to reshape the social contract around work in an era of greater globalization.

On Tuesday, another report indicated international trade could have a destabilizing effect on many American employers and workers. From 1997 to 2005, more than 100 major U.S.-based manufacturing industries lost significant chunks of their home U.S. market to imports, according to the study.

The report published by the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of family-owned and closely held American firms. The council favors a new approach to international trade agreements, including a temporary across-the-board tariff on imports, with the exception of a few essential products such as oil.

Alan Tonelson, a co-author of the council’s report, says insensitivity to Americans’ job losses, stagnating wages and declining benefits can be found even among liberals.

"There is a very substantial portion of the Democratic Party and of American liberals who are just as clueless as to the real plight of the American working class," Tonelson says.

--Ed Frauenheim