Economic plan should focus on individuals, Hillary Clinton says

Now that there’s no denying that the U.S. economy is badly shaken, the presidential candidates are highlighting their ideas on how to fix things.

If you are like me, you probably just roll your eyes when you hear their lofty plans that involve everything from tax cuts to special retirement accounts to proposals to pump up businesses.

It all sounds good, but history has shown that tax cuts don’t cut it as the major driver of an economic stimulus. They generally miss the people who need help the most. And we know that trying to pump up the economy by boosting businesses has often resulted in the rich getting richer.

Want to impress me? Then come up with something that has an immediate impact on people’s lives.

Last week I got a call from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign asking if I wanted to talk to the Democratic candidate one-on-one about her economic stimulus plan.

Of course I did. In fact, I want to talk to all the leading candidates. I’d love to share with them the massive amount of e-mails I get from folks across the country frustrated by their financial conditions.

When I read their stories of foreclosures, lost jobs, choking student loans and strangling credit card and medical debt, I want to weep.

During our conversation, Clinton spoke passionately about finding common-sense solutions that focus on individuals.

“This is not an abstract economic discussion for me,” she said. “This is about the real people that I represent in New York and that I meet all over America and the incredible pressures they are feeling in the economy.”

Clinton used the “R” word. I note this because you can’t heal what you won’t acknowledge.

“I think we are slipping toward a recession,” she said. Of course, saying it now before it is official allows her to place blame on the Republican administration.

Still, for those struggling financially, it doesn’t matter if there’s an official declaration of a recession. Times are tough now.

The unemployment rate is up. Inflation is rising, largely due to higher energy and food prices. Consumer bankruptcy filings increased nearly 40 percent nationwide last year. And in many parts of the country, housing prices continue to fall.

Clinton said that stabilizing the housing industry isn’t the only step necessary to stimulate the economy.

“A lot of people are in over their heads in debt and it’s not just mortgage debt,” she said. “It’s credit card debt. It’s consumer debt of all kind. It’s college loan debt. It’s medical debt. And what we’ve got to do is provide as much help as possible to give people a chance to work their way out and get their finances in order short of having to go into bankruptcy.”

I like Clinton’s idea to create a “community support fund” of up to $5 billion to assist hard-hit communities and troubled homeowners. Among other things, the fund would help pay for financial counseling, she said.

The financial-planning portion of that proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. Perhaps that’s because it’s so straightforward — and so simple. And yet, financial counseling can do more for individual households and communities than any tax plan.

With the right counseling, individuals can avoid foreclosure, eliminate their debts and improve their creditworthiness. With good financial counseling, marriages can be saved. Help the individual, and you boost the economy.

Clinton and I talked about mandatory financial education courses for high school students.

“When I was in junior high and high school we all had to take courses that we used to call home economics,” she said. “You were given information about how to manage your home, manage your finances … pay for your lifestyle.”

Studies on the financial literacy of teens show that we are raising a generation that won’t be able to manage their financial lives in adulthood.

Clinton said she favors returning to a time when conventional fixed-rate debt was the norm. She said she was “deeply concerned” about the many practices of credit card companies.

“I think they have really not been given sufficient regulatory pressures to be more conscious of the way they do business,” Clinton said.

“There are a lot of tactics that need to be reined in. We have become so debt-friendly and then we have people who take advantage of that.”

I asked Clinton: Is there such a thing as good debt?

“I was raised by very frugal parents,” she said. “My father did not believe in debt. He never had a credit card. He saved his money. He was not going to put us at risk. Ultimately, if you are in debt you basically undermine your ability to chart your own future. You become dependent.”

Clinton wasn’t as radical as I am in declaring that there isn’t any good debt, but she gets that it has become a dangerous trap for far too many people. It’s important that whoever is our next president be highly sensitive to that fact.

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