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Kerry to put spotlight on college costs

Senator's campaign measuring middle-class 'misery'

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    (CNN) -- To highlight one of the factors he says is squeezing middle-class families, Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry travels Tuesday to the University of Rhode Island for a roundtable discussion on college affordability.

    The Kerry campaign has unveiled this week what it calls the "Middle-Class Misery Index" to measure the impact of rising costs and shrinking incomes on millions of American families. (CNN/Money: Kerry cites 'Misery Index'external link )

    The index "puts together the kitchen table economic issues that determine whether working families are feeling economic anxiety or economic optimism under President Bush," said Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser for former President Clinton who helped put together the report for the Kerry campaign.

    Former President Carter established the traditional misery index during his race for the White House in 1976, and it has since been used by politicians in other campaigns. The index is unofficial, and no government agency keeps track of it.

    Unlike that misery index, which combines unemployment and inflation rates, the new index looks at median family income, college tuition, health costs, gasoline costs, bankruptcies, homeownership rates and private-sector job growth.

    Each of the seven factors had an equal contribution to the index figure, said economic policy director Jason Furman.

    The report concludes the index for the middle class "worsened 13 points in the last three years -- the largest three-year fall on record and the worst record of any president ever."

    The "Bush view is that everything negative is just a matter of chance," said Sperling in a phone news conference with reporters. The Kerry campaign contends that many of the changes "are not just a matter of bad luck but of bad policy," he said.

    Kerry's visit to the Providence campus is part of his outreach to the nation's youngest voters called "Change Starts with U: Kerry Campus Tour 2004." It follows a rally Monday at the University of New Hampshire. The senator is also set to hold a town meeting at the Rhode Island school before attending fund-raisers in Providence and Boston, Massachusetts.

    Bush camp calls index 'bogus'

    The Bush campaign wasted no time in releasing a blistering response.

    "John Kerry has made up a false measurement to support his ongoing efforts to talk down the economy," said spokesman Steve Schmidt. "John Kerry's support for higher taxes on small business, Social Security benefits and gasoline would bring misery to America's working families."

    The campaign ripped apart what it called Kerry's "bogus" index, saying the traditional misery index is "at a modern historic low for a president facing re-election."

    But the Kerry camp offered a different, equally specific read. "The traditional misery index is worse right now than it was in 2001," said Furman, who noted that unemployment is up substantially since Bush took office.

    Technically, both campaigns' assertions are accurate.

    The most recent statistics, for February, put the misery index at 7.3 percent, a combination of 1.7 percent inflation and 5.6 percent unemployment. The rate was down to about 6.7 percent in January 2000, and was at 7.9 percent when Bush took office in January 2001. Through the rest of that year it fluctuated, getting as low as 7.2 percent.

    Sperling said if the Kerry campaign's goal had been to make Bush look bad, it could have used different statistics in the "Middle-Class Misery Index" -- including consumer confidence, which is down substantially, and long-term unemployment, "the worst it's been in 20 years." He also noted that the campaign included homeownership in the index -- the one factor of the seven that has gone up under the Bush administration.

    The campaign wanted to look "at the economic trends most directly impacting families who rely on their paychecks to make ends meet," he said.

    New Hampshire's Republican Gov. Craig Benson, in a news conference organized by the Bush campaign before Kerry's swing through the state Monday, slammed the report.

    Kerry has twisted economic figures to "make it sound like the economy is stalled and doing worse" when the stock market and home ownership are up and more Americans are starting businesses than at "any time in American history," Benson said.

    "Everything is headed in the correct direction," he said. "It doesn't take a lot to knock this rider off the horse, and an economy that is recovering does not need someone speaking about it in negative terms."

    CNN/Money's Chris Isidore contributed to this report.

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