While working people toil, the richest have never have it so good. It’s time to fight back – our democracy depends on it
(The Guardian) — The United States cannot prosper and remain a vigorous democracy when so few have so much and so many have so little. While many of my congressional colleagues choose to ignore it, the issue of income and wealth inequality is one of the great moral, economic and political crises that we face – and it must be dealt with.
The unfortunate reality is that we are moving rapidly toward an oligarchic form of society, where a handful of billionaires have enormous wealth and power while working families have been struggling in a way we have not seen since the Great Depression. This situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Today, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, 500,000 of the very poorest among us are homeless, millions are worried about evictions, 92 million are uninsured or underinsured, and families all across the country are worried about how they are going to feed their kids. Today, an entire generation of young people carry an outrageous level of student debt and face the reality that their standard of living will be lower than their parents’. And, most obscenely, low-income Americans now have a life expectancy that is about 15 years lower than the wealthy. Poverty in America has become a death sentence.
Meanwhile, the people on top have never had it so good. The top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 92%, and the 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of American society – 165 million people. While millions of Americans have lost their jobs and incomes during the pandemic, over the past year 650 billionaires have seen their wealth increase by $1.3tn.
The growing gap between the very rich and everyone else is nothing new.
Over the past 40 years there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class and working families to the very wealthiest people in America.
In 1978, the top 0.1% owned about 7% of the nation’s wealth. In 2019, the latest year of data available, they own nearly 20%.
Unbelievably, the two richest people in America, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, now own more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans combined.
If income inequality had not skyrocketed over the past four decades and had simply stayed static, the average worker in America would be earning $42,000 more in income each year. Instead, as corporate chief executives now make over 300 times more than their average employees, the average American worker now earns $32 a week less than he or she did 48 years ago – after adjusting for inflation. In other words, despite huge increases in technology and productivity, ordinary workers are actually losing ground.
Addressing income and wealth and inequality will not be easy, because we will be taking on some of the most powerful and well-financed entities in the country, including Wall Street, the health insurance industry, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial-complex. But it must be done. Here is some of what Congress and the president can do in the very near future.
We must raise the minimum wage from the current starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to a living wage of at least $15 an hour. A job should lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it.
We need to make it easier, not harder, for workers to join unions. The massive increase in wealth and income inequality can be directly linked to the decline in union membership in America.
We need to create millions of good-paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure – our roads, bridges, wastewater plants, sewers, culverts, dams, schools and affordable housing.
We need to combat climate change by fundamentally transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels towards energy efficiency and renewable energy which will also create millions of good paying jobs.
We need to do what virtually every other major country does by guaranteeing healthcare to all people as a human right. Passing a Medicare for All program would end the absurdity of us paying twice as much per capita for healthcare as do the people of other countries, while tens of millions of Americans are uninsured or under-insured.
We need to make certain that all of our young people, regardless of income, have the right to high quality education – including college. And that means making public colleges and universities tuition free and substantially reducing student debt for working families.
And yes. We need to make the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America start paying their fair share of taxes.
Growing income and wealth inequality is not just an economic issue. It touches the very foundation of American democracy. If the very rich become much richer while millions of working people see their standard of living continue to decline, faith in government and our democratic institutions will wither and support for authoritarianism will increase. We cannot let that happen.