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Behind the good numbers

GEORGE BUSH was right to note in his acceptance speech last week that many Americans have been left out of the current economic recovery. Homelessness and poverty, whether on city streets or in backwoods hollows, attest to that. Mr. Bush was acknowledging, in effect, that the employment and income numbers - good as they've been - don't tell the whole story. Significant numbers of people either are hardly touched by them at all - the poor - or are aware of things that counter them. How else to explain the poll findings of recent months indicating that better than half the American public isn't satisfied with the way things are going with the economy? An even larger segment sees a ``so-so'' economic outlook over the next five years.

Some of these people, it can be assumed, hold those new jobs created by the thousands in recent years. Why should they be pessimistic? It may be that they've picked up enough about the ``decline of America'' debate raging in intellectual circles to sense that there are dramatic changes going on throughout our global neighborhood, and that US dominance is doubtful if not dissolved. Few average Americans could have failed to hear about the sharp competition from ever-better overseas goods. And the twin deficits, budget and trade, raise vague doubts about the economic future in the minds of many people.

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In the transition from ``macro'' assessments - like low joblessness and growing per capita income - to the ``micro'' level, people may also run into soaring costs of home ownership in many parts of the country. Only 47 percent of American households can now afford the median-priced American home - pegged up there at $90,600. And what about the cost of sending kids to college? Or the cost of a new station wagon, plus the insurance to drive it legally? A number of fairly indispensable, high-ticket items have gone up in price far faster than the current 4 to 5 percent rate of inflation.

Increasing interest rates throw another negative element into the economic equation.

Still, polls concurrent with those that found uncertainty about the overall economic outlook found large majorities satisfied with the way things are going with their personal finances. That's hardly surprising in itself - surely the recovery has brought some tangible benefits to a broad sweep of Americans. But this does point to a clear duality in people's economic perceptions. It also points to difficulties for the presidential candidates who will be trying to hit the right economic buttons with voters.

Mr. Bush, however, definitely hit a right one last week by including mention of less-fortunate Americans in his speech. Most Americans like to know their leaders care about people in need. We wouldn't mind seeing Michael Dukakis pick up on that traditionally Democratic theme now and generate a little lively debate on just what approach will best help lift the lives of the poor. That would certainly enrich our political dialogue.

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