A Lost Opportunity

Yesterday, Kos had an interesting post explaining why some reasonably progressive politicians voted for the bankruptcy bill. It essentially boils down to the fact that many of them receive significant contributions from the credit card industry and are unlikely to face serious political consequences by voting for the bill.

I don’t take issue with Kos’ thesis, but for the sake of the progressive movement, we’ve got to find a way to overcome this dynamic.

The debate over bankruptcy reform was a significant opportunity to reach out to working-class Americans, particularly women. Forty percent of families filing for bankruptcy are in the second income quintile, which is above the poverty level but still struggling. Women with children are especially hard-hit by bankruptcy. More than one out of every six mothers will go bankrupt by the end of the decade, and families with children are about three times more likely to file for bankruptcy than households without children.

These Americans most affected by bankruptcy are the same Americans who have not been responding to the progressive economic message. As American Progress fellow Ruy Teixeira has shown, Bill Clinton tied Bob Dole for white working-class Americans in 1996. Al Gore lost these Americans by 17 points, and John Kerry lost them by 23 points. Almost all of the white working-class movement toward President Bush was among women, not men. President Bush won white working-class men by almost identical margins in the two elections (by 29 points in 2000 and by 30 points in 2004), but he widened his margin among women from 7 points in 2000 to 18 points in 2004. Even more striking, 55 percent of white working-class Americans trusted President Bush to handle the economy, while only 39 percent trusted Senator Kerry. In short, the progressive economic message has not resonated with working-class Americans, and with working-class women in particular.

Bankruptcy reform can speak to these Americans. Progressives can stand up for the burdened middle-class Americans who continue to feel squeezed by this economy, and expose the real agenda of conservatives who support this bill — to aid highly profitable credit card companies, not squeezed middle-class Americans.