A new report published by the Institute for Policy Studies attaches new, striking numbers to the inequality debate in the United States.
“America’s 20 wealthiest people,” a summary of the report notes, “now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.”
The report also brings to light stark racial inequalities, observing that the richest 400 Americans “now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population – plus more than a third of the Latino population – combined.”
For those who wish to believe that the United States is the pinnacle of a free and just nation – a nation that promises prosperity for those who work hard and do good – these numbers serve as a humbling counterpoint.
Reality is a bitter pill: The federal minimum wage in the United States is lower today than it was in 1968 (adjusted for inflation) while top CEOs are thriving, some earning 300 times as much as the average worker.
Massive corporations dodge taxes by taking advantage of loopholes, blackmailing states into granting them luxurious benefits, and hiding profits in overseas tax havens while smaller businesses struggle in an increasingly volatile economic climate.
Wages for the top 0.1 percent soar while the average employee works longer hours and seeing fewer benefits. They watch helplessly as their political influence declines in the face of the collusion of corporate and government power and as unions collapse under the assault from the right, a result that is terrible for the middle class.
In the post-Citizens United era, wealth equals political power.
As the New York Times reported, just 158 families have donated almost half of the money that has gone into the 2016 presidential race so far. Many influential studies – the major one authored by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens – demonstrate that the views of the majority of the public have no influence on policy, while the wealthy tend to get their way.
A nation in which wealth determines political influence and policies are implemented not to promote the “general welfare” but to serve the interests of those at the top of the income scale cannot be called democratic.
And, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood, a nation in which so much of the population is crippled by financial insecurity cannot honestly be called free.
Possible solutions vary: the Institute for Policy Studies proposes several, including “clos[ing] off wealth escape routes” (i.e. tax havens) and loopholes, “taxing…capital gains as ordinary income,” debt restructuring for students, greater investments in education and affordable housing, and “baby bonds,” which would level the playing field for children not born into tremendous wealth and privilege.
Before any solution can be implemented, or even proposed, we have to admit there is a problem. A majority of the population recognizes the problem (an economic system that disproportionately favors the wealthy) though its significance is often underestimated. Many of our elected officials and their corporate backers, however, are unwilling to give any ground – their reasons are too obvious to state.
But, “Facts,” as Aldous Huxley wrote, “do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
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