Former presidential candidate John Edwards famously described the country as split into two Americas: "one America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants."
This could not be more accurate. Today there are two Americas: one that is struggling to get by and the other that resides inside the Beltway. Beltway America is faring quite well during the Great Recession.
• A recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that while the personal wealth of the American citizen has plummeted, the collective personal wealth of congressional members rose by more than 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, with more than half (261) millionaires.
• While 8.3 million jobs have been lost in America since the onset of the recession, only 35,000 jobs were lost in the Washington metropolitan area. The D.C. metro area not only saw those jobs recovered, but has added 20,000 additional ones.
• While the national jobless rate is near 10 percent, the jobless rate in the D.C. metropolis is about 6 percent.
• Pay in Beltway America is sublime. Federal employee compensation and benefits average $123,049, double their private-sector counterparts, with an average compensation of $61,051. Meanwhile, in the Rest of America, the state of the economy has left citizens pessimistic, scared and beset by a nagging uncertainty of when, or even if, they will ever recover their losses.
Beltway America experts claim the worst of the recession is over; the Rest of America is simply not feeling it. Consider:
• Exit polls in the last election showed a third of these Americans had someone in their household recently lose their job. In June, the Pew Research Center reported 55 percent of Americans in the workforce have experienced unemployment, a pay cut, reduced hours or being forced into part-time work.
• A July opinion poll conducted for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards found that two out of three (65 percent) are more concerned about their financial situation today than two years ago. According to the November exit polls, 40 percent said they were worse off financially than two years ago. Ninety percent were apprehensive about the direction of the economy. Half were "very worried."
• A CareerBuilder survey in May showed 77 percent of the Rest of America live paycheck to paycheck. A record number, 40.8 million, are using food stamps, up 55 percent from December 2007. Thirty-six percent seeking assistance from food banks have one employed adult in the household.
• A July MetLife poll found that 69 percent of the Rest of America did not feel they had a sufficient safety net, and 55 percent feared losing their job.
• Today, one in seven Americans (44 million) and one in five children live below the poverty line, the largest since the Census Bureau started tracking poverty.
Why the disparity between the two Americas? As the Washington Times' Patrice Hill reported, "A $700 billion bank bailout and $814 billion economic stimulus bill helped push the federal deficit to unprecedented levels of more than $1.3 trillion in the past two years, and a disproportionate share of that tidal wave of money washed up right back in Washington." All paid for by taxpayers from the Rest of America.
While those in Beltway America enjoy the parties, perks and privileges, they become increasingly disconnected from the other America for whom they work and represent. Aside from visiting their local district for a photo op, it is difficult for Beltway politicians to empathize with the Rest of America. They can speak about jobs, but how can they identify with the real hardships of unemployment, much less a cut in pay, when very few of them have ever experienced a job loss? The average term for a senator is 14 years, enough to ride out at least two recessions unscathed and prepare for a posh lobbying career once leaving the Senate.
The race for 2012 has already begun, and hard economic times leave little tolerance by the Rest of America for tone-deaf politicians. In this technological age, where BlackBerry smartphones bloom throughout the political halls of Congress, there is no excuse for those nestled inside the Great Wall of the Capitol not to become in touch and engaged with the Rest of America. Recognizing their pain is the first step.
Brent Regan is the developer of VoxVerus (voxverus.com), a social networking system designed to promote communication between voters and their elected officials.