Giving economy perspective

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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More than a decade after he left the presidency, some of Bill Clinton’s more famous quotes still have resonance today. “It’s the economy, stupid,” for example.

Clinton used that quip in his successful 1992 campaign against George H.W. Bush to highlight a fundamental truth of American politics. When our economy’s a mess, foreign policy and all other issues take second fiddle.

Back in 1992 it was easier to understand what political leaders meant when they talked about the economy, though. The country had just come out of a recession that had hurt both big businesses and small individuals.

Today, talking about what the economy is like reminds me of a more infamous Clinton-ism. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Depending on how you measure things, you could say the economy is good. Look at gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced within the country. GDP climbed at an annual rate of 3.2 percent over the last three months of 2010. Or look at corporate profits, which were climbing at 2.6 percent by the middle of 2010.

On the other hand, Clark County finished 2010 with a 12.9 percent unemployment rate. One in 50 houses here was affected by foreclosure last year. For U.S. workers who held on to their jobs, inflation-adjusted pay actually dropped $2 per week last year. The cost of food, gasoline and even toothpaste is going up. Locally and nationally, people are feeling squeezed.

Is the economy really so good? That’s a no-brainer for the vast majority of middle-class Clark County residents. No matter what the numbers say, no matter how profitable it may be to run a large corporation, no matter how you define the economy — or the word “is,” for that matter — times are tough.

A new focus

The Columbian has tackled many of the challenges that Clark County’s middle class faces. We’ve written about job fairs, job seekers, people reinventing themselves after layoffs by starting new businesses, the challenges of bankruptcy and the shortfalls facing local workers as they near retirement. But our coverage of the middle class has been slapdash and scattershot, not systematic.

That’s about to change.

Beginning in a few weeks, award-winning Columbian reporter Erin Middlewood will take on a new beat: the middle class.

As Middlewood said when she proposed her new job description, we are in an era of profound economic dislocation. Home ownership in a good school district, college for the kids, a balance between family and work responsibilities, and a secure retirement — hallmarks of the American dream — seem increasingly out of reach.

I hope that Middlewood’s work in the months and years ahead gives us insight that will help members of Clark County’s middle class make smart decisions about their lives.

Better to help our readers make smart decisions about a stupid economy than to stupidly ignore the economic challenges that are weighing them down.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.