As we near Election Day, both parties are ramping up their efforts to reach potential voters. The fictional “average Joe” and the more recent  “Joe six-pack” were pushed aside last week to make way for the headline-dominating “Joe the Plumber.” Incorporating the lives of real workers into the presidential debate is essential in both connecting with voters and in demonstrating that a campaign hasn’t forgotten who they should be focusing on. But the dialogue surrounding Joe the Plumber has missed what should be the main point of such stories: how good policies can help workers achieve the American dream.

Stories about the plumber named Joe Wurzelbacher have mostly discussed the presidential candidates’ tax policies in a way that focuses on technicalities and misses the larger story. Under Sen. Barack Obama’s plan, individuals earning an annual income of $250,000 or more would be taxed at a slightly higher rate than they currently are, while those earning less than $250,000 would receive a nice tax break. Sen. John McCain has little to offer in tax cuts for middle- and lower-income taxpayers. Most of the media attention has focused on how profitable the business Joe hopes to buy actually is, and whether he would face a tax increase or decrease under Sen. Obama’s plan.

Others stories have narrowed in on Joe’s business and personal life, questioning whether Joe has a plumber’s license, whether he is really an undecided voter or a Republican partisan, and denigrating his extreme views on other political issues, such as his desire to see Social Security dissolved. Whether Joe is undecided or if Sen. Obama’s tax plan would raise or lower his taxes does matter, but the way the stories have been told misses the main point of how economic policies facilitate or hinder more people from achieving the American dream.

Joe should be seen as the aspirational figure that he is—one whose ambitions are intimately linked with government policy. He wants to get ahead and achieve the American Dream, which for him is to buy a plumbing business.

Government policies matter for this sort of upward mobility. Joe’s profession might, in fact, be a good example of a job that rewards workers, in part because of government policies. Plumbers are skilled workers who receive training that is supported through public policies such as vocational high school and union apprenticeship programs. Jobs like Joe’s pay well and provide income protection in an era of global outsourcing. And perhaps most importantly, plumbing is the kind of job that has a career ladder, where a worker can start off as an apprentice, acquire training and experience to become a journeyman plumber, work up to becoming a master plumber, and then hire other plumbers.

We need to ensure that America has more jobs that can boast these attributes, and that is what the conversation should focus on during election season, as well as after the ballots have been counted, when policymakers will need to help deliver the good jobs that their constituents need. Government policies matter not just for plumbers, but for all of us.

The kind of tax cuts supported by Sen. McCain, which are the centerpiece of his economic plan and disproportionately benefit those with high incomes, have a poor track record. Such tax cuts don’t do a good job of creating economic growth or improving the incomes of most workers. Economic growth rates—average annual real median household income, average real hourly earnings, employment, real investment, and real U.S gross domestic product—were all lower after Ronald Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts in 1981 and George W. Bush’s in 2001-2003, than they were after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increases. Federal budget deficits and national debt also increased during supply-side periods, but decreased following the 1993 tax increases.

Government data and anecdotal stories alike highlight the pain that a growing share of America’s workers and their families are feeling. The Census Bureau released data in August detailing that the median household income was 0.6 percent lower in 2007 than it was in 2000 when the previous business cycle ended. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest monthly employment release also announced a decline of 159,000 jobs in September, meaning that the economy has now lost a total of 760,000 jobs in 2008.

In contrast to this misguided emphasis on tax cuts for those with the highest incomes, the Center for American Progress has put forth an agenda for progressive growth that is based on investments in energy transformation, universal health care and education, and improving opportunity and security for workers.

Achieving the American dream takes hard work and individual responsibility, but it also requires good public policy in order to become a real possibility for the majority of workers. Public policies that lead to a productive and adequately rewarded workforce range from increased financing for education at all levels and in a vast array of arenas, to encouraging the creation of “good jobs” in underserved communities. More specific to the current economic downturn, the United States could jumpstart both job creation and the transformation to a low-carbon economy through a Green Recovery program. While such policies do cost money, they are a necessary investment in our nation’s future.

Successful careers and a healthy labor market are the result of public investment in people. It is long past time we commit to making that investment. Failing to do so now will only result in more pain for American workers and the long-term growth of the U.S. economy.

Learn more from the American Worker Project.

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David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project