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Income and Inequality
02.04.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

Social in-security.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The system, however, on it's current path, is headed toward bankruptcy. And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security.

BRANCACCIO: The President's out selling his vision of private retirement accounts… but is the current system really headed for a breakdown?

CONSTANCE RICE: None of it adds up. It's worse than fuzzy math. Why are you tinkering with the last bedrock safety net system that we have?

BRANCACCIO: NOW contributor Connie Rice on the state of our union.

And in Iraq: a promising election ...But someone's declared war on women who dare to be independent.

ZAINAB SALBI: Educated women. Working women. Women who are outspoken. Women who kept their old lifestyle. Kept on driving cars. Kept on wearing their western clothing. They were all assassinated one by one.

ANNOUNCER: And now, Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome. Let's begin tonight with David's handy, wallet-sized guide to some of the great public policy issues of our time. I never leave home without it: the driver's license.

So you want to know if Social Security is in trouble, check this part of the license…the birthdate. If the year is in the 1940s, 50s or 60s you're golden. Social Security without any changes will pay you what was promised. If the date-of-birth is in the 1980s, you are s-o-l, sure out of luck.

According to the Congressional Budget Office numbers, the Social Security Trust Fund doesn't runs out 'til 2052.

Which means a kid born in 1982 who retires at 70 will get nasty surprise in the form of reduced benefits. Not a crisis surprise but a surprise.

According to the NEW YORK TIMES, the Bush administration is backing off the word "crisis." That term wasn't polling well, so it's been replaced with "serious problems." The term "privatization" is out, too - "personal accounts" used instead.

Back to the wallet sized guide to public policy: it may also help with the economy. Check your Zip code. If it's in, for instance, Indiana, the newly elected Republican Governor Mitch Daniels in his state of the state speech called their economy "too weak".

MITCH DANIELS: The state of our state needs serious attention. The foundation is still firm, but major repairs are overdue.

BRANCACCIO: Daniels wants sweeping spending cuts and a 29 percent hike in Indiana's top tax bracket.

That had the WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial page fuming. This from the man they huffed, was President Bush's first budget director dubbed "the blade" for his federal budget chopping.

That's Indiana, but again, Zip code counts: in Virginia, happy days are here again. There's word this week that Virginia's treasury has come into an unexpected windfall including a pile of extra corporate tax revenue leading to an estimated 1 point 2 billion dollar budget surplus.

Off the record we're told a big reason is all that federal spending percolating into the bottom lines of companies so close to Washington including private companies taking over work formally done by the Department of Defense.

Perhaps because he lives closer to Virginia than Indiana, President Bush emphasized the positive in his State of the Union speech Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BUSH: And in the last year alone, the United States has added 2.3 million new jobs.

BRANCACCIO: 2.3 million jobs created but how many millions lost? On balance were jobs up or down? The final job numbers for the President's first term came in today and the answer is:

It was a real squeaker, but we can now say there were 119,000 more people on payrolls now compared to four years ago. That means Herbert Hoover is still the last president to preside over a net loss of jobs in a single term.

BRANCACCIO: So how do the vagaries of your date of birth or Social Security or the job totals play out for working Americans? Constance Rice is here to help us talk about that. Rice works in Los Angeles. She's a civil rights lawyer for the Advancement Project. And in the category of neither here nor there but truly interesting, is the fact that she is the second cousin of another Rice who just became America's new Secretary of State.

Connie, thanks for joining us.

CONNIE RICE: Thank you, David.

BRANCACCIO: So the President earlier this week, State of the Union, said it is a healthy growing economy, more Americans going back to work. How do you translate a statement like that into the reality that you see when you spend time with working Americans?

CONNIE RICE: I think that the President is indicating that the statistics he sees give him a nice picture of an improving economy. But the reality on the ground, on Main Street, is something completely different. And if you look at what's happened over the last 30 years to the average American working family it's not a good story.

BRANCACCIO: Well, put a number to that courtesy of the LOS ANGELES TIMES. They looked at the early 1970's and a person's income might fluctuate in a given year 25 percent. These days twice as much.

CONNIE RICE: You know, the risk has really increased David. Well, let me give you an example of a family that struggles to put things together in L.A. She's a supermarket cashier and he works on the docks unloading ships. When the supermarket strike hit in Los Angeles, she obviously was out on the picket lines and the supermarkets locked them out which meant, she lost her pay. She had lost her health benefits, they lost their rental apartment because her income went down. And their car went out. He couldn't get to work. They ended up homeless. Now that's an example that is at the bottom. There are a lot of examples of people who are doing-- white collar jobs; they're working in pharmaceutical companies, health benefit companies, or just as accountants and so forth.

We traded-- this is what we traded: we traded security for volatility. And there was a reason that I think people tried to engineer this. And what I mean by people our politicians and our policy makers decided, I think 35 years ago, that they wanted to smooth out the economy so that business would have a smoother environment. So their risks would be reduced. And there's some good things about that. Inflation stays down, stagnation ended. We've had a lot of prosperity. But the problem is and only a few people got it number one. And number two, for most families we traded a security floor, pensions, life insurance, health insurance, job security. All of that got slashed.

BRANCACCIO: This is supposed to be the land of opportunity. And by that it usually means upward mobility. That, yes you might be poor, but with hard work there are rewards in this society. You're saying actually when they get out there taking a look at what you see on the ground the reality's very different.

CONNIE RICE: Now, you know, if you look at working families, and that's-— they're the bottom of the middle class to the solid middle class — they're now on a trajectory, instead they used to slowly improve they're now flattening out and they're going to start to lose. Poverty went up for the first time in the year 2002. And it's been going up since then. CEO's have done beautifully. Their average pay of the 30 years has increased 2,700 percent. I'd take that any day David. Two thousand seven hundred.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, I could use that.

CONNIE RICE: For the average median, the median-- average median salary increased for the average worker in the United States ten percent increase over the 30 years. That is not sharing the prosperity.

And you know what there's no such thing as an invisible hand David. That stuff we learned in economic 101 and economics 10, nonsense. There's no such thing as an invisible hand. The economy is engineered, prosperity is engineered. Right now we're engineering upward mobility and we're engineering wealth creation for the very few. We're enriching the few. And we are no longer investing in the many.

My grandfather for example never-- on my mothers side, steel worker. Used to sign his paycheck with an X.

BRANCACCIO: He didn't write.

CONNIE RICE: He didn't read or write. And he had ten children. All ten of those children went to college and or nursing school. And he had an Italian immigrant family on one side of his little house and a Polish immigrant family on the other side. Neither of them spoke English either, so you know they were all illiterate. But they all raised children because the schools worked, they had pensions, they had GI Bills that they bought their houses with. They had life insurance; they had educational benefits for their kids.

They had an engine that the corporation, Bethlehem Steel and the textile mills, the Berkshire Knitting Mills created with government. They were working together to spread the prosperity and to give the middle class a toe hold and then a ladder to climb up. Well, the ladder's gone. And the government has basically deregulated and slashed all of the public systems it used to support.

BRANCACCIO: Well, part of the safety net. Social Security. The President says earlier this week, we must ensure that lower income Americans get the help they need to have dignity and peace of mind in their retirement. That means reforming Social Security. That must do some of what you need.

CONNIE RICE: Unlikely, not with the proposal he has. I don't understand how you can talk about increasing security when you're going to throw people into a system that's essentially gambling. The stock markets are gambling. You put money you don't need into the stock market. And if you're going to have future generations relying on this, you're going to trade a guaranteed benefit knowing a secure level of income that you can depend on for something that's a question mark.

The analysis I've seen has said that you would have to have a market that performed like no other market in the history of woman for this to produce the level of the guaranteed benefits. It hasn't worked in England, it's had mixed results in Chile. There are no details here. So I don't know why the President is proposing a system to replace a system that people can depend on with one that they cannot.

BRANCACCIO: You're not moved by this idea that the President brought forth recently that the current Social Security system discriminates against African Americans. Statistically, African Americans unfortunately die younger, therefore collect less of the Social Security than other groups.

CONNIE RICE: Why don't we fix the reasons that African Americans die younger, rather than tinkering with the Social Security system to address that problem. That's just silly.

Now I don't mind creative solutions, David. But put the consequences on the table. Tell the American people what the real risks are. Tell them what could happen. Give them a worst case scenario and give them a best case scenario. Don't just give them slogans and hype up some kind of crisis when there isn't one. It's worse than fuzzy math. And I also have to wonder, why are we tinkering with the last bedrock safety net system that we have? We talked about how they've gotten rid of the job training, there's no more guaranteed-- there's no more guaranteed anything. Including employment.

BRANCACCIO: The President says to preserve it, that's what he says.

CONNIE RICE: No, it's not to preserve it. I think it's to build a constituency. And I think it's-- this is not-- this is the problem with both of these parties right now. We have politicians who respond only to people who have paid to have their solutions fixed. That's the only way you can talk about the Medicare bill and everything else that comes out of this Congress. It does not benefit average Americans. It's almost like a corporate--

BRANCACCIO: You're saying poor people are not paying for their views to be heard.

CONNIE RICE: Well, they don't have lobbyists. They're not on K Street. And unless you have special access, you will notice that the bills that come out are not solving problems for the vast majority of Americans. If you've paid to play, you will see these bills come out and you will look at them and you will wonder, okay, now why then tell me again why we can't have large volume buying a prescription drug? Oh, because Eli Lilly doesn't want it. Oh, I got it.

It's really fascinating to see that the systems they're fraying the systems that actually invest in the many and create upward mobility for the many and they're orchestrating and enhancing and enriching the systems that keep funneling the money upward.

BRANCACCIO: You think you'll see some of this play out in the next big milestone for the America? Just days away. Federal budget, the proposed budget for 2006 comes out. It's slated for Monday. And this is where the outlines that we saw during the inauguration speech, and the State of the Union speech, where the rubber hits the road. Where they attach money to some of these priorities.

CONNIE RICE: The budgets that you're going to see coming out very soon are going to be more of the same. They're going to slash programs talking about how government shouldn't be in this business. People should have to stand on their own. I'm saying basically to those Democrats, Republicans, the Demoblicans and the Republicrats all of them, that you are not giving us a blueprint for upward mobility for the middle class and for the working class in this country in the 21st Century. You're just not. Tell people what the real risks are. And then if you really care about the American people, propose programs that are going to reduce those risks and give them a bridge over the troughs when they get on that roller coaster.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Constance Rice at the Advancement Project, thank you very much.

CONNIE RICE: You're welcome, David.

BRANCACCIO: And before you- go- help me with this-- it's Republicans, Democrats and Redemocrats-- how did you do this? Help me through it.

CONNIE RICE: Demuplicans and Republicrats.

BRANCACCIO: Demublicans and-- I'll keep working on it. And Connie thanks for being willing to become a regular contributor to this program.

CONNIE RICE: Oh, you're more than welcome. I look forward to it.

BRANCACCIO: Speaking of economic indicators, here's one. A strong indicator of the health of a country is the status of it's women. Look at Iraq. We all saw that women voted in big numbers in this week's elections. But overall, the indicators are not all that good. Zainab Salbi has been working to change that. She's an Iraqi-American and founder and President of Women for Women International. A group that helps women overcome the horrors of war across the world. Zainab Salbi, welcome to NOW.

ZAINAB SALBI: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Iraqis, Americans, the world want to know, now that the elections are done, is the situation in Iraq coming together to form a state that really works? How is watching the status of women in that country a good indicator of this?

ZAINAB SALBI: Well women are like the bell weather in a society. If you look at Iraq right after the war, the first kidnapping incidents that happened right after the war is actually against women. They were trafficked, and they were kidnapped, and raped, and the violence increased immediately.

Now, a lot of groups start paying attention to that. Human Rights Watch, actually, was one of the few who reported that. Women for Women International reported that. And there was no action whatsoever. There was absolutely silence to that phenomenon.

Now, eventually, men started getting kidnapped. Children getting kidnapped. And all foreigners, as we know it, are getting kidnapped. And this kidnapping business in Iraq is one of the most flourishing business and it's increasing. Now, this is a bad indicator. And in the last few months, particularly since about September of last year, women have been assassinated. And assassination of women became very targeted and very strategic.

Educated women. Working women. Women who are out spoken. Women who kept their old lifestyle. Kept on driving cars. Kept on wearing their western clothing. They were all assassinated one by one. Reporters, professors, pharmacists, doctors, activists. Again, they all have the same profile. The messaging here is for women to go home. 'Women, we don't want to see you in the streets.' And so far, Iraqi women are being very resilient about it. So far, they're insisting they go out and they have a voice. So their participation in the election was, actually, very courageous. Very courageous.

BRANCACCIO: If we are to accept this notion that to understand how healthy a society is, we should look at the women. What do you see when you talk to women?

ZAINAB SALBI: I see two things. On the one hand, I see women being very determined and actually unified in what they're asking for from the future.

BRANCACCIO: By the way, you've done this systematically, right?

ZAINAB SALBI: Absolutely. We, Women for Women International, just finished a survey of a thousand women in Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad. All women — 94 percent of the women — we surveyed they said they want to protect their legal rights. That this is very important thing for them.

Eighty-seven percent of the women we surveyed say they want to make sure that they vote in a constitutional — in the final draft of the Constitution. And then that protects their rights. 80 percent of the women we surveyed said that they want to make sure that women are represented in local and national councils. And about 89 percent, they said they were disappointed in the limitation of women's participation since the end of the war.

So it tells you a lot. It tells you-- I mean, they had a lot of complaints about security, and access to water, and housing, and economic opportunities, and education.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, fundamental visceral stuff, oh, surely.

ZAINAB SALBI: They -- it's-- there were complaints, complaints, complaints. But then when you ask them about the future and what they want to get from their future participation in the country. They were very clear and determined about what they wanted.

BRANCACCIO: What surprised you the most from the accounts from the conversations that you saw as your organization went door to door talking to women?

ZAINAB SALBI: When you ask Iraqis, whether it's men or women or children, 'what is the solution to this insecurity right now?' The first thing they answer is that we want jobs. Everyone wants a normal sense of home. A job, three meals a day, a roof,sending their kids to school. You have phenomenon in Iraq in which you see adults who are literate, but their children who are illiterate.

And so people want their children to go to school. And I think, in a way, that was a turning point in how Iraqi lost their public support to the American occupation. And because a lot of then expected their life to be better over night. So there's a sense of over promise. That America came and everything is going to be good. Over expectations. And there was very limited delivery in that time period.

And so you do see a turn — a 180 degrees turn — between how people perceived the occupation from a positive way to a negative way. And I think most of it because their lives have not only not improved, it's went worse. I mean, in Baghdad you have two hours of electricity at the moment. This can't-- I mean, if it happens in America, we will see riots on the street. It is not reasonable.

The electricity impacts the economic of the house. It-- the way you live, the way you cook, the way you shop, the way you eat, the way you do your laundry. Everything. And so there was no sense of normalcy in their lives. What we're seeing also in practice is that women are being pushed. I mean it is dangerous as a woman to go and walk in Baghdad streets right now. Last time I was there, I was covered. It was the first time in my life to cover in Iraq and I--

BRANCACCIO: Why'd you do that? Why'd you cover yourself?

ZAINAB SALBI: I was absolutely scared. A lot of my friends were killed and kidnapped. One of them was a pharmacist who had a Christian guy was her business partner which is very noble-- normal in Iraq. She's a divorcee. She has a-- two children. This is a profile of a very normal Iraqi woman, right? She got kidnapped in the middle of a busy, crowded street. She disappeared for ten days and at the end of ten days, they dropped her and her business partner, with a head scarf in her-- in her head. And a bullet in her head.

The fact that she was killed in a head scarf. Something that she never wore before says a lot about the direction that we are facing in Iraq.

So you do have women determined. And you do have-- the street reality is very scary.

BRANCACCIO: What about you? What do you want for Iraq?

ZAINAB SALBI: I think, personally, I think, succeeding in Iraq would mean reaching and grabbing the hearts and minds of people. And that is delivering very tangible outcomes-- mostly economic outcomes. Iraqis were very optimistic right after the war. I mean, people were just happy that, for the first time in their lives, they can speak. There is freedom. There was this there were my first trip to Iraq-- everyone was running after me. And they were saying, "Please tell Mr. Bush thank you for liberating us from Saddam. And please tell Mr. Bush that we want electricity. And we want jobs. And we want a normal life." You know? So it was that dichotomy--

BRANCACCIO: So you last went back-- I guess, this last October--

ZAINAB SALBI: Right.

BRANCACCIO: The mood was different.

ZAINAB SALBI: Very different. No one now dare say I am pro the occupation or anything like that. But also no one says it was better before in Saddam's time. They said it was bad before. And it is bad now. And we should not be given the option between two bads.

BRANCACCIO: Zainab, you looked at some of your data, as well. And I was struck with when all is said and done, pretty pervasive optimism that you found among these women. What explains that?

ZAINAB SALBI: Ninety percent of the women we surveyed said that they were very optimistic about the future. Now when you're asked to define that optimism or what does it mean-- well, they had very clear about-- in terms of their representation in the government. They wanted more economic opportunities. They wanted housing. They wanted education. But there is optimism. And I argue that it is that optimism that we need to grab onto. And hold onto. And capture. This time succeed in capturing the hearts and the minds of the women. As well as the whole, you know, society. But the women are a very solid door into the society.

Women need to be really essential part of the new Iraq. This whole election and women's participation in the election would not be successful if women are not in the Constitutional drafting committee. If we fail to get women, and if we fail to protect women's rights, we will lose Iraq. And if I am to predict the signs, as it is right now, it is not going in the right direction. It is going into a more conservative, religious society. So we really need to grab it. And we need to make sure that that doesn't happen in Iraq because

BRANCACCIO: So that be the guide for us looking into the Iraqi situation going forward? Is to watch that Constitutional committee and see what happens?

ZAINAB SALBI: That is the most critical thing now in Iraq. If we lose the Constitution, we lose Iraq, basically. And so I would want to make sure that women are truly represented in the new Iraq. Not for women's sake only. Although, women deserve it on their own merit. But for the larger society's sake. To ensure economic, political, religious, educational access and freedom in Iraq.

BRANCACCIO: Zainab, are you gone back to Iraq?

ZAINAB SALBI: I hope so, in March, yes.

BRANCACCIO: In March?

ZAINAB SALBI: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Looking forward to it, or--

ZAINAB SALBI: It's-- I tell you, I work in wars-- oh, for the last decade. I lived in the Iran Iraq War and this is the most dangerous place to be at. And I actually am scared every time I go to Iraq. It is-- every time you leave the house, and it's not only me. Anybody that... all the people that I know. It's-- it's a mourning period. It's people kiss you in a good-bye as if they're not going to see you again.

A lot of my family, for example, they stopped working. They did not send their kids to school this year. Because they're afraid of the kidnapping and the insecurities. So it's a very tense situation. But there's still the optimism and the hope.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Zainab Salbi, Women for Women International, thank you very much.

ZAINAB SALBI: It was my pleasure, David. Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Next week on NOW, we'll be getting out of the studio and back onto the road. To take a look at how the military is struggling to get enough men and women in uniform.

The war on terror. As America's military commitment deepens, so does the need for experienced troops in the war zone. And who exactly is the Pentagon going after?

MAN: The exact statement was, I don't care about your personal problems. You will go where the hell I tell you to go, and you will do what the hell I tell you to do.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org

Connie Rice: What's ahead for working Americans.

Weigh in on the fiscal state of the union.

Find out more about women in Iraq.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org


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