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Kerry measures 'middle-class misery'
Campaign says the misery index gauges working families for feelings of economic anxiety or optimism.
April 12, 2004: 4:44 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN) - Seeking to show that millions of American families are being "squeezed" by rising costs and shrinking incomes, John Kerry's presidential campaign announced Monday that it has created a "Middle-Class Misery Index."

The index "puts together the kitchen table economic issues that determine whether working families are feeling economic anxiety or economic optimism under President Bush," said Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser for President Clinton who helped put together the report for the Kerry campaign.

Unlike the traditional misery index, which combines unemployment and inflation rates, the new index looks at median family income, college tuition, health costs, gasoline cost, bankruptcies, home ownership rate, and private-sector job growth.

Each of the seven factors had an equal contribution to the index figure, said economic policy director Jason Furman.

The report concludes that the Middle-Class Misery Index "worsened 13 points in the last three years -- the largest three-year fall on record and the worst record of any president ever."

The "Bush view is that everything negative is just a matter of chance," said Sperling, in a telephone news conference with reporters. The Kerry campaign contends that many of the changes "are not just a matter of bad luck but of bad policy," he said.

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The Bush campaign wasted no time in releasing a blistering response. "John Kerry has made up a false measurement to support his ongoing efforts to talk down the economy," said spokesman Steve Schmidt. "John Kerry's support for higher taxes on small business, Social Security benefits and gasoline would bring misery to America's working families."

The response ripped apart what it called Kerry's "bogus" index and said the traditional misery index is "at a modern historic low for a president facing re-election."

But the Kerry camp offered a different, equally specific read. "The traditional misery index is worse right now than it was in 2001," said Furman, who noted that unemployment is up substantially since Bush took office.

Technically, both campaign's claims are accurate.

The traditional misery index is unofficial, and no government agency keeps track of it. Former President Carter established it during his race for the White House in 1976, and it has since been used by politicians in other campaigns.

The most recent statistics, for February, put the misery index at 7.3 percent, a combination of 1.7 percent inflation and 5.6 percent unemployment. The rate was down to about 6.7 percent in January 2000, and was at 7.9 percent when Bush took office in January 2001. Through the rest of that year it fluctuated, dropping as low as 7.2 percent.

Sperling said if the Kerry campaign's goal had been to make Bush look bad, it could have used different statistics in the Middle-Class Misery Index -- including consumer confidence, which is down substantially, and long-term unemployment, "the worst it's been in 20 years." He also noted that the campaign included home ownership in the index -- the one factor of the seven that went up under the Bush administration.

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The campaign wanted to look "at the economic trends most directly impacting families who rely on their paychecks to make ends meet," he said.

New Hampshire's Republican Gov. Craig Benson, in a news conference organized by the Bush campaign before Kerry's swing through the state Monday, slammed the report.

Kerry has "twisted" economic figures to "make it sound like the economy is stalled and doing worse," when in fact the stock market is up, home ownership is up, and more Americans are starting their own businesses than at "any time in American history," he said.

"Everything is headed in the correct direction. It doesn't take a lot to knock this rider off the horse, and an economy that is recovering does not need someone speaking about it in negative terms," he stated.  Top of page

--CNN/Money senior writer Chris Isidore contributed to this report.

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