Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Obama's legacy feels the Bern

The biggest early surprise in the 2016 race is Donald Trump. The second-biggest is Bernie Sanders.

Though Trump leads the GOP field while Sanders remains a distant second among Democrats , each captures roughly 1 in 5 of his party’s voters in national polls. Sanders, the self-described socialist from Vermont, is doing well enough to put pressure on Hillary Clinton to mimic his populist tone.

If Clinton is looking for someone to blame, she should look at Barack Obama.

That’s because Sanders’ ascent is in part an admission from the left that the Obama years have been a slow-rolling disaster for low- and middle-income Americans.

Obama recently got a “mostly false” rating from Politifact for claiming the economy is “by every metric” better now than when he took office. Nope: Inflation-adjusted wages are down, poverty is up, a smaller share of Americans is working (including those in their prime working years of 25 to 54), and a larger share is on food stamps.

Americans who do work are more likely to be poor. Just this past week, the federal government reported 7 percent of workers in 2013 were considered “working poor,” the fifth year in a row at or above that threshold. That line wasn’t crossed a single time between 1986 (the earliest reported year) and 2008.

Obama has harped on income inequality more than any president in decades, but he has presided over a widening of the gap. Those at the top have built wealth faster of late than those in the middle and bottom — in large part because, six years after the Great Recession officially ended, the average American is still less likely than before the downturn to own stocks, a retirement account or a home .

Enter Bernie Sanders, whose rhetoric implies the shortcoming of Obamanomics — but whose plans would merely double down on it.

Obamacare made millions more Americans dependent on government for health insurance; Sanders would put all of us on the dole with a single-payer system. Obama raised taxes on “the rich” to their highest level since before the Reagan tax reforms of the 1980s; Sanders would go further to an undefined “fair share.” Obama has proposed a nearly 40 percent increase in the national minimum wage; Sanders would more than double it.

Rather than more government intervention, what Americans need is an economy that creates jobs on a scale large enough to make up for seven years of stagnation.

Take the minimum wage. Not only would doubling it harm job growth. History suggests the minimum wage isn’t as low as you might think.

Remember that point about the “working poor” making up a larger share of the labor force now than in the previous two-plus decades? Surely that’s because the minimum wage isn’t keeping up, right?

Wrong. Since at least 1986, a full-time minimum-wage earner has made enough money to keep himself out of poverty. But in only four years since then has that person made enough money to keep two people out of poverty. Three of them were recent: 2009, 2010 and 2011 (the other was 1997). Seen that way, the minimum wage has held up pretty well.

Times are indeed tough for too many Americans. But poverty is too high not because the minimum wage is too low, but because too many people aren’t earning a wage at all. Fixing that requires choosing a different path, not running farther down the current one.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.