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Thursday, December 8, 2016

This may be Jeb Bush’s “47 percent” moment.

The Republican presidential candidate this week told the New Hampshire Union Leader, “[W]e have to be a lot more productive. Workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”

Democrats were quick to criticize Bush for seeming to say that Americans are not working long or hard enough and that is contributing to the nation’s slow economic recovery. The Democratic National Committee released a statement calling Bush’s comments “out of touch” with the reality of the U.S. workforce and the struggles of middle-class Americans.

In his defense, Bush said his words were taken out of context, and later clarified, telling reporters: “If we’re going to grow the economy, people need to stop being part-time workers, they need to be having access to greater opportunities to work.” So, more full-time jobs for more Americans. Sounds great.

But Bush stopped well short of addressing the key economic issue on many Americans’ minds: stagnant wages.

As labor unions, grassroots organizers, and workers continue to campaign for a higher minimum wage of $15 per hour, Bush remained silent about how real wages in the United States have not risen for decades.

It’s true that more U.S. workers need greater access to full-time opportunities. Too many of the jobs created in recent years have been low paying or part time, with little regularity in scheduled work hours or job security and benefits.

Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Huffington Post reports:

[T]here are currently 6.5 million individuals working in part-time jobs who would prefer full-time employment, while 19 million Americans work in part-time jobs for non-economic reasons.

Still, the majority of employed Americans work full time, defined as working 35 hours or more per week. And according to a 2014 Gallup poll, “full-time employees reported working an average of 47 hours a week.”

The difficulty that many full- and part-time workers share is low wages, especially workers in low-income industries like the service sector. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been raised since 2009. Given that productivity increased by 74 percent from 1973 to 2013, but hourly wages only jumped 9 percent over the same period, according to the Economic Policy Institute, American workers are clearly getting shortchanged.

Jeb Bush has criticized President Obama’s economic policy, arguing that the administration has made it hard on businesses to create jobs. (Conservatives blame the Affordable Care Act for raising employee costs for businesses.)

If he wanted to make a fair criticism, he could challenge the recent “positive” jobs numbers, which came with two major caveats: In June, unemployment declined — but that was due to lower workforce participation and workers’ average wages flattening. Bush spoke about the shrinking labor force, but failed to mention wages. He has, however, expressed his disdain for raising the federal minimum.

Ultimately, this week, the former Florida governor showed his true colors: He prefers to scapegoat poor and working-class people rather than acknowledge that middle-class wages have been leveling off for years while CEO profits skyrocket.

Even when Bush aimed to contextualize what he said about Americans needing to work more hours, he sounded like Mitt Romney in 2012, talking about the 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims…. who pay no income tax.”

“You can take it out of context all you want,” Bush told reporters, “but high sustained growth means people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success they have disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than standing in line and being dependent upon government.”

What Bush said, and didn’t say, is actually 99 percent clear. He thinks workers should earn more to boost the economy — by working more hours, not by getting a raise, and certainly not by “being dependent upon government.” Thank you for the context, Mr. 1 Percent.

Photo: Jeb Bush, May 16, 2015, iprimages via Flickr

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