by By Howard Gleckman

This Election Day will find most Americans in much better economic shape than ever,
 making George W.'s job even tougher

Since Ronald Reagan, a staple of every political campaign has been to ask the question,
"Are you better off now than you were four (or eight) years ago?" If the answer is "yes,"
the party in power will very likely stay there. If the answer is "no," voters are probably
going to show the "ins" the door.

This Labor Day, the answer seems to be a resounding "yes." A new report by the left-leaning
Economic Policy Institute lays out in 400 data-filled pages just how strong the economy is.
"The State of Working America" declares that just about any way you want to measure it,
working people are doing better now than at any time in the last three or four decades.

The pro-labor EPI can usually be expected to look for the clouds behind the silver economic lining.
And it finds many: People are working longer hours, many have no pensions or insurance benefits,
and much of the recent good news comes after years of slow wage and income growth.
While union membership as a percentage of the total U.S. workforce has stopped the sharp
fall it was on during the 80s and early 90s, it hovers today at only about 13%.
Still, even the EPI concludes "the last five years have seen significant improvements."

LOW-WAGE GAINS.  Here's why, according to the EPI: Although unemployment ticked up
last month to 4.1%, it remains at its lowest levels since 1969. From 1995-98 (the last year data
are available), total family income -- after adjusting for inflation -- rose an average of 2.8% a year,
faster than at any time since the early 1970s. During the same 1995-98 period, the median family
income -- also after inflation -- rose at an annual rate of 2.5%, from $51,447 to $55, 377.
That, too, is the strongest period since 1967-73.

>From 1995-99, wages were up 6.4%. And some of the fastest growth was enjoyed by the lowest-paid.
The bottom 10% of all workers saw their inflation-adjusted pay go up 9.3% through the period.
Entry-level wages for high school graduates rose 6.2%, after having fallen steadily for the prior two
decades. And for college grads, wages jumped an astounding 12%.

Even as Americans were earning more, they were buying more. Home ownership jumped nearly 2%
over the past decade. Computer ownership nearly doubled from 1993 to 1998, to more than 42% of households.

And more and more workers are investing their earnings. Nearly half of all households owned stock
in 1998, up 20% from 1995. And over the same period, median family wealth jumped from $48,800
to $60,700, after figuring in inflation.

CAN I AFFORD IT?  The rich, of course, are getting even richer. Measuring both income and wealth,
a growing share of the pie is being concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest. For instance, the top 5%
of wage earners saw their incomes rise 3.2% in the 1995-98 period, faster than any other income group.

Fact is, most voters don't care about how they're doing relative to the rich. They care about whether
they've got a good job and can afford to buy what they want.

Well, in 2000, they can. And that's the biggest single hurdle for George W. Bush to overcome.
He can hammer Al Gore for fund-raising at a Buddhist Temple or for Gore's silly claim of having
invented the Internet. But Americans are happy right now. Their wallets are fat. And they may well
be too busy toting up their paychecks to much care about what Bush has to say.

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