The son of a coal miner, he made almost $200,000 in the last year, enough to place him in the top 2% of wage earners. As a financial manager for the U.S. unit of Alstom, the French bullet-train maker, he has lived an expense-account life, spending most nights in hotels and jetting to meetings in Washington and Paris.
FOR THE RECORD:
Economic risk —An article Sunday in Section A on the increasing economic risk faced by working Americans said Lockheed Corp., Chrysler Corp. and New York City filed for bankruptcy in the 1970s. All three averted bankruptcy after they received government loan guarantees.
But look carefully at Fredo's circumstances and a less appealing picture begins to emerge — one in which, over the last 25 years, economic risk has been steadily shifted from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families like his.
By the time Fredo joined Alstom here last year, he had become an itinerant executive, a contract worker brought in for a particular purpose, then sent packing. "They tell me every Friday whether to come back," the 57-year-old explained.
Between his last regular job as the chief financial officer of another company and his hiring at Alstom, Fredo was unemployed for nearly two years and saw his income decline by two-thirds. He has long been without health benefits, holidays, paid vacation or job security.
"We come from the old school that you work hard and give it your all, and the job will be there for you," said Fredo's wife of 35 years, Donna. "It's different today."
From his perch several rungs down the economic ladder, Ron Burtless sees the same forces at play — forces that have caused his family's income to swing sharply up and down.
Unlike Fredo, Burtless never aspired to the executive suite. Instead, almost three decades ago, he reached for a union card and went to work as an electrician at a Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant in Indiana. Until recently, he seemed the very embodiment of Middle American stability, with a $60,000 annual wage, two grown daughters, a red Ford pickup and a five-bedroom suburban home.
But in a matter of just two weeks last year, Burtless' finances were thrown into disarray when Bethlehem collapsed and, adding injury to insult, he was badly hurt on the job and saddled with more than $90,000 in medical bills. Having fallen through cracks in the workers' compensation system, he now ponders a wrenching question: "Am I going to have to go bankrupt?"
In their own ways, the problems encountered by Fredo and Burtless can be traced to the same source — a set of economic policies shaped by government officials and corporate executives intent on creating a more prosperous America.
Starting in the late 1970s, the nation's leaders sought to break a corrosive cycle of rising inflation and stagnating output by remaking the U.S. economy in the image of its frontier predecessor — deregulating industries, shrinking social programs and promoting a free-market ideal in which everyone must forge his or her own path, free to rise or fall on merit or luck. On the whole, their effort to transform the economy has succeeded.
But the economy's makeover has come at a large and largely unnoticed price: a measurable increase in the risks that Americans must bear as they provide for their families, pay for their houses, save for their retirements and grab for the good life.
A broad array of protections that families once depended on to shield them from economic turmoil — stable jobs, widely available health coverage, guaranteed pensions, short unemployment spells, long-lasting unemployment benefits and well-funded job training programs — have been scaled back or have vanished altogether.
"Working Americans are on a financial tightrope," said Yale University political scientist Jacob S. Hacker, who is writing a book called "The Great Risk Shift." "Business and government used to see it as their duty to provide safety nets against the worst economic threats we face. But more and more, they're yanking them away."
The yanking may be far from finished.
On the campaign trail this year, President Bush has made the case that people are better off relying on themselves, rather than on business or government, in case of trouble. Under the banner of the "Ownership Society," the president has proposed a series of new, tax-break-heavy accounts to let families pay for their own retirements, healthcare and job training. He also has called for partially replacing the biggest of the government's protective programs — Social Security — with privately held stock and bond accounts.
Such arrangements might help people build up their personal assets. But the approach also would expose them to even more economic risk than they've already taken on.