Working poor all but forgotten this election

Louisiana native and Democrat political pundit James Carville will forever be associated with the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Although that is a variation of Carville’s actual answer when asked what the top issue of 1992 was – “The economy, stupid” – he realized its payoff. Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist turned that line into successful statement.

Carville set the stage against Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush and third party candidate Ross Perot by highlighting the basics.

Twenty years later, Carville’s phrase could end up being one Republicans use in their effort to make Barack Obama, like Bush Sr., and economy-plagued Jimmy Carter before him, members of the one-term presidents’ club.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked voters during his campaign of 1980.

Although ideological opposites, and involved in different political eras, Carville and Reagan shared a common understanding that votes are closely linked to feelings of well-being. After all, personal comfort generally outweighs all other issues.

One category of Americans keenly aware of their lack of well-being could hold the edge for either incumbent Obama or presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. This group is 7.2 percent of the labor force, designated as working poor.

A genuine segment of society, the working poor has expanded beyond unskilled laborers. It now includes those caught in the crossfire of corporate scandal, industrial crashes and reduced wages, contrasted by increased levels in the cost of living during the past decade.

Reuters reports that the percentage of working poor is at its highest level in 20 years. It was at 5.5 percent in 1992.

A variety of factors play into weighing poverty levels and individuals falling within a specific category.

The difference is that the new working poor are former members of a disappearing middle class. Their numbers include one-time white-collar professionals and skilled blue-collar tradesmen.

The new working poor learned the hard way what it means when Wall Street gets excited about quick returns or government brags about reduced first-time unemployment filings. Neither means anything when paychecks still fail to match expenses on a reduced standard of living.

The U.S. Census Bureau listed 46.2 million Americans as living in poverty in 2010. The new working poor are identified as including 10.5 million of that number.

This is a challenge and opportunity facing both career politician Obama and former corporate executive Romney.

For the new working poor, it is about the economy, and there is nothing stupid about that.