Ever since Ronald Reagan dramatically posed the question while campaigning in 1980, candidates for political office predictably ask voters, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Incumbents then provide slices of data to show that, yes, citizens are better off, while challengers provide gloomier data that suggests the situation is worse.
It's time for voters to carefully consider this question. In less than two months Ohioans will not only play a significant role in choosing a president and vice president but also select a U.S. senator, 18 U.S. representatives, the chief justice and three justices on the state supreme court, 16 of 33 state senators, all state representatives and numerous local judges and officials.
In determining when one is better off, it makes sense to look at the basics: employment, education and health care. Jobs enable us to buy food, shelter, clothing, transportation and everything else we need. In addition to sharpening our intellect, education is a necessity for obtaining employment. Access to doctors, hospitals and medicine keeps us alive and healthy.
Only nine states have higher unemployment than Ohio. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics shows our state's unemployment rate in December 2000 was 3.9 percent, while the July 2004 rate was 5.9 percent, an increase of more than 51 percent.
Since December 2000 more than 241,000 Ohioans have lost their jobs — more than any other state in the country. This compares with 120,000 jobs being added to Ohio's economy during 1999 and 2000. Cincinnati's unemployment rate jumped from 3.0 percent in December 2000 to 5.3 percent in June 2004, an astounding leap of nearly 77 percent. Ohio's economy is inarguably worse than it was four years ago.
If they are not going to protect manufacturing jobs, state lawmakers must aggressively and quickly attract high-tech jobs to the state and establish broadly accessible programs that train Ohioans for those jobs. Due in part to the Third Frontier Project, a $1.6 billion initiative to create high-tech jobs, Ohio has improved somewhat in rankings of tech-friendly states. In a March report, the Milken Institute, a California-based economic think tank, ranked all 50 states and Washington, D.C., on technology-related investment, the technological education of the workforce and the concentration of tech companies in the state. From 2002 to 2004, Ohio jumped three spots to 24th.
With Ohio hemorrhaging jobs, being 24th best is not sufficient. As the state's rising unemployment rate shows, jobs are leaving Ohio substantially faster than new positions are being added. The Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonpartisan group that promotes economic development research, recently compared all 50 states with regard to numerous growth factors, including those related to employment. Its report ranks Ohio 48th in the number of new companies entering the state, behind only Iowa and South Dakota, 41st in short-term employment growth opportunities and 45th in long-term employment growth opportunities. Without major changes, which lawmakers haven't made, things are not going to get better anytime soon.
Furthermore, recent cuts to funding of higher education call into question lawmakers' dedication to fueling Ohio's transition to the new economy. The cost of a college education has increased due to numerous factors while state support has actually decreased by nearly 1.8 percent over the past four years. Consequently, students and their families are left to shoulder the significant burden of these cost increases, rendering college — a necessity in the current job marketplace — unaffordable to many. Between the 1999-2000 and 2004-2005 school years, tuition and fees (excluding room and board) at the University of Cincinnati increased nearly 68 percent, from $4,998 to $8,379, while the inflation rate for that period was only 9.86 percent. Similar increases occurred at most of the state's two- and four-year post-secondary institutions.
Rising premiums have similarly constricted access to health care. A U.S. Census Bureau report issued last month revealed that the number of uninsured Americans rose to record levels in 2003. Nearly 45 million were uninsured that year, up 16.3 percent from 2000. In Ohio, 12 percent were uninsured in 2003, up from 10.4 percent in 2000. This translates to more than 190,000 Ohioans losing health insurance in just three years. The number of uninsured had declined from 1999 to 2000.
The driving force behind this growing number of uninsured is the increasing cost of insurance. As rates rise, fewer companies can afford to offer coverage to its employees. Health care premiums rose by 13.9 percent in 2003, 12.9 percent in 2002 and 10.9 percent in 2001, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's annual health benefits survey. The 2003 increase represented the greatest one-year increase since 1990.
Even though Ohioans are undeniably worse off than they were four years ago with regard to three basic aspects of American life — employment, education and healthcare — they are paying more for these results than citizens in 46 other states. Only residents of New York, Washington, D.C., and Maine have a higher state and local tax burden, while Hawaii's is the same, according to an analysis by CNN and Money Magazine. On average, Ohioans pay 11.3 percent of their income as state and local taxes, including property taxes, sales taxes and fuel taxes, among others. The national average is 10 percent.
On average, Ohioans are undoubtedly worse off than they were four years ago. Unemployment in the state is up dramatically. Education and health care are significantly more expensive and thus less available.
If we follow Reagan's logic from 1980, it is time to vote out incumbent politicians — primarily Republicans — at both the federal and state levels.