We Must Do Better

By:  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

The skyrocketing increase in income and wealth inequality is the great moral, economic and political issue of our time.  It needs to be addressed by Congress, and it needs to be vigorously discussed by the American people. 

The United States is the richest country on the face of the earth.  Yet, there are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our nation’s history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country in the world.

Today, the richest 400 Americans own more than $2 trillion in wealth, more than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.  Over the past decade, the net worth of the top 400 billionaires in this country has doubled – increasing by an astronomical $1 trillion.  Meanwhile, half of Americans have less than $10,000 in their savings accounts and have no idea how they will ever be able to retire with dignity.

About 45 percent of Americans are financially insecure, most of them living from paycheck to paycheck.  One unforeseen car accident, one trip to the emergency room, one lost job will throw their lives into economic turmoil. 

The United States cannot claim to be a moral leader when so many Americans have so little and so few have so much.  That is not what America is supposed to be about.

While the rapid rise in income and wealth inequality is morally repugnant, it also is causing tremendous damage to the economy.  About 70 percent of the economy is dependent on Americans buying goods and services.  Since 1999, however, the typical middle-class family has seen its income go down by more than $5,000 after adjusting for inflation.  That’s $5,000 less to spend in restaurants, grocery stores, clothing shops, theatres, pharmacies and other businesses each and every year.  When the middle class has less money to spend, businesses hire fewer workers, cut wages, eliminate pensions, and ship more jobs overseas. 

While the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing, the wealthiest people in this country are doing phenomenally well.  Last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers made more than $24 billion, enough to pay the salaries of more than 425,000 public school teachers.  Wall Street paid out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year – enough money to double the salaries of 1 million workers in this country who make the minimum wage. 

Amazingly, Charles and David Koch, the second wealthiest family in the country, saw a $12 billion increase in their wealth since last year and are now worth $80 billion.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the eighth wealthiest person in the world, has a net worth of $38 billion, up $11.5 billion since last year.

The Walton family is now worth $148.8 billion, a $4.1 billion increase since last year for the Wal-Mart owners.

Since the Great Recession, 95 percent of all new income created in this country has gone to the top 1 percent.

Today, the United States is No. 1 in billionaires, No. 1 in corporate profits, No. 1 in CEO salaries, No. 1 in childhood poverty and No. 1 in income and wealth inequality in the industrialized world.  We have got to do better than that.  Where can we begin?

For starters, we have got to increase the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.  In the year 2014, a job must lift Americans out of poverty, not keep them in it.   

We need to extend emergency unemployment benefits to the 2.2 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months.  Doing so will add 240,000 jobs to the economy by the end of the year.

We have got to create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, dams, sewers, culverts, schools, and affordable housing.  Repairing our nation’s infrastructure needs to be done sooner or later.  Let’s do it now.

We have got to transform our energy system away from dirty fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy and create millions of jobs in the process. 

And we have got to make sure that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share.  Each and every year, millionaires, billionaires and profitable corporations are avoiding $100 billion in taxes by stashing their cash in the Cayman Islands and other offshore tax havens.  Over the past five years, General Electric, Boeing, and Verizon paid nothing in federal income taxes, even though they made $78 billion in profits combined since 2008.  We cannot allow that to continue.

The true greatness of a country does not lie in the number of millionaires and billionaires it has. Rather, a great nation is one in which justice, equality and dignity prevail. 

This Sunday, at 10:30 a.m., I will host a free screening of the Robert Reich documentary “Inequality for All” at Mt. Anthony High School in Bennington, Brattleboro Union High School, Middlebury Union High School and St. Johnsbury Academy. I hope you to see you there. 

Working together, we can, once again, expand the middle class in this country and make sure that our kids and grandkids have a better future.