Economic, social issues caught in the whirlwind of presidential politics. Has Reagan boom produced good jobs?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

George Bush and Michael Dukakis see America's economy through different eyes. Vice-President Bush, in a burst of enthusiasm here Tuesday night, called the American economy ``the greatest job-creating machine in man's time on Earth.''

Governor Dukakis takes a sharply different view: ``The rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and those in the middle, and that means most of us, are getting squeezed.''

Mr. Bush talks about good jobs, good wages, and six years of solid economic expansion under Republican leadership. He dismisses Mr. Dukakis's description of the economy as ``gloom and doom.''

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Dukakis charges that too many new jobs are low-paying. Many are part-time. Often they lack fundamental benefits like health insurance. The governor argues that the country cannot prosper if most new jobs consist of flipping hamburgers.

Whose picture of America is accurate, the rosy prosperity depicted by the GOP? Or the view of Democrats that America is falling behind?

Experts, poring over tables of figures, tell us there is no simple answer.

Bush is correct that the United States is enjoying record peacetime expansion, and that millions of Americans have found jobs in the past six years.

But Governor Dukakis also has some facts on his side. Despite the expansion, poverty is up. Personal incomes haven't grown the way they once did. And many families, especially those with low levels of education, are falling behind.

Robert Ortner, undersecretary for economic affairs in the Commerce Department, notes that it is possible to use figures to prove different points.

For example, Democrats argue that since 1973, median family income has risen only $33. The 1987 figure was $30,853. In 1973, it was $30,820 (in constant dollars).

So where is the big expansion Bush boasts about?

Dr. Ortner observes that Dukakis fails to point out that family incomes began declining after 1978 during President Jimmy Carter's term, and continued declining until 1982, when they bottomed out at $27,591. Since that time, they have steadily risen.

In speeches, Bush points out that median family incomes fell 3 percent during the Carter years, but have risen more than 10 percent during the Reagan years.

Ortner also questions the notion that many of the new jobs created during the Reagan-Bush years are poor-paying.

He notes that in 1982, 7.7 million jobs paid over $600 a week. The number of those jobs now has risen to 18.6 million.

Meanwhile, the number of ``hamburger flipping'' jobs paying under $200 a week has declined from 29.6 million in 1982 to 24.4 million.

Inflation accounts for part of the shift to higher pay, but not nearly all of it.

Rebutting one Democratic claim, Ortner says: ``The actual statistics don't show that we're giving up $440-a-week jobs and replacing them with jobs at a third of the salary.''

He concludes: ``There's a big increase in employment, and they are very solid, high-paying jobs.''

Robert J. Shapiro, deputy issues director for Dukakis, sharply disagrees.

Mr. Shapiro notes that families are scarcely maintaining their incomes, even though more and more families have both spouses in the work force. Since 1981, an additional 5.2 million families have become two-earner households.

Shapiro also takes issue with Bush's claim that 18 million new jobs have been added during the Reagan years. The actual figure is 13 million, says Shapiro.

He observes that Bush counts only from the end of the 1982 recession, when the number of jobs was depressed. But that fails to account for several things, including the 2.2 million jobs lost from January 1981 to the end of the recession. It also fails to account for 400,000 farmers who lost their jobs. And it fails to note that more than 2 million of the new jobs are only part-time.

``The fact is, historically the 1980s have seen the slowest rate of job growth of any period since World War II,'' Shapiro says.

Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the economic picture is mixed, but that many of the concerns that Dukakis raises are valid.

Looking at weekly earnings for the past two decades, it appears that the peak of real earning power came in 1973 for full-time workers. By 1981, when Reagan and Bush took office, it had fallen sharply. The numbers seesawed until 1984, then began a slow, steady climb.

Mr. Greenstein says one concern is the growing level of poverty among people who are working.

Between 1978 and 1987 (years of comparable unemployment rates), the number of working families living in poverty rose 1.8 million, or 27 percent.

A root of that problem is education. Because of the rapidly changing US economy, poorly trained workers are finding it difficult to get good jobs, as they once could in steel mills and auto plants. Today, education has become crucial on the factory floor, Greenstein says.

The result: Millions of Americans are getting left behind. Thus, while the poverty rate for college-educated Americans has remained very low, the rate among those with high school educations, or less, has climbed from 6.6 percent to 9.3 percent in the past 10 years.

While both candidates disagree on the state of the American economy, they both argue that the answers to current problems lie in the classrooms of America.

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