The Continuing Saga: Increasing Inequality in the U.S.
By Bruce Nissen
It’s a pretty well-known story by now. The rich are getting richer, and poor are getting poorer, and the “middle” is hollowing out with the vast majority joining the poorer in losing ground while a small number of the so-called middle class join the ranks of the rich. This has been going on for decades.
The consequences are damaging to the fabric of our country. Massive corporations and billionaires use all that money to “buy” the electoral results and public policies that even further redistribute wealth upwards to themselves. Homelessness proliferates, housing grows ever-more unaffordable, governments lack the resources needed to address urgent social needs, millions lack normal access to healthcare, the deregulated businesses despoil the environment and the country heads toward dissolution of a democratic form of government as people lose faith that a democratic system can actually deliver on the needs of the populous. Meanwhile, billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spend millions on private adventures in space and plans to escape to other planets as social needs go unmet and Earth heads toward Armageddon.
To make matters worse, the court system that is now stuffed with judges dedicated to maintaining the grip of big money over our country are firmly placing the rules that result in increasing inequality into the coercive grip of the law. In the infamous Citizens United case in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money is speech, and therefore curbs on monetary expenditures to influence elections are unconstitutional curbs on free speech. The Court also ruled that corporations are people, and therefore curbs on corporate spending are violations of constitutional rights of corporate “persons” to free speech. The rule of money over our political system is thus complete; inequality continues to grow.
The latest figures from the federal government are not encouraging. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that wage inequality continued to increase in 2020, the most recent year for which numbers are available (https://www.epi.org/blog/wage-inequality-continued-to-increase-in-2020-top-1-0-of-earners-see-wages-up-179-since-1979-while-share-of-wages-for-bottom-90-hits-new-low/).
How bad is it? Let’s look at a graph of wage growth since 1979 for the wealthiest 1% all the way down to the bottom 90%.
In the 41 years between 1979 and 2020, the top one-tenth of 1% had real (inflation adjusted) increases in their wages of 389%. For the top 1%, it was more than 179%. For the bottom 90%, it was just over 28%.
As is apparent from the graph, in every period during those decades, wages from the bottom 90% continue to be redistributed upwards. Consequently, the share of all wages received by the bottom 90% has dropped by 9.6% while the share of the top 5% has increased by 9.2%. This is despite the fact that a solid majority of Americans think there is too much inequality in our country (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/views-of-economic-inequality/). Sixty-one percent think there is too much inequality; 23% the right amount, and only 13% believe there is too little inequality.
Clearly the trend in income inequality is contradicting the wishes of the American people. The consequences of such vast inequality are verging on catastrophic. Yet the same poll showing public opposition to our nation’s inequality also show that only 42% of the American public think that attacking inequality should be a top priority of public policy (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/).
There may be many reasons for this lack of urgency in attacking the problem. One is that polls also show that even though Americans are aware of inequality, they consistently underestimate the degree of it. Another might be cynicism that public policy changes could actually make much difference. A third could be that most Americans fail to make the connection between growing inequality and the myriad of other ills facing our society (lack of healthcare, lack of affordable housing, erosion of democracy, etc.).
For those of us who care deeply about this issue, perhaps a first step toward reversing our runaway inequality is to broadly publicize the issue and make people aware of its extent and its disastrous consequences.