We’ve heard the mantra over and over. One percent of the richest Americans control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth; and the top 20 percent possess 85 percent of the riches. There’s no question that income inequality continues to grow, especially for minorities. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Yes, statistically the upper 1 percent of the population or perhaps more realistically 20 percent (still a huge wealth gap) — stand in sharp contrast to the lower 80 percent of the population which share only 15 percent of the national wealth, have fewer resources and thus less power than the rich. They should be fighting back. But they aren’t. Many of the 80 percent in the middle- and low-income group are not paying attention, have a false view of who they are, or simply do not grasp that they are part of an endangered species. As a result, they are not a cohesive army ready to do battle for changes that will benefit them.
How else can we explain why we don’t have universal health care? Ask anyone to rank what is most important in life and they consistently place health at the top, ahead of money and achievement. Many of the 80 percent of Americans who collectively have only 15 percent of the national wealth have been brainwashed to believe that all government is bad, despite the fact that state, federal and local governments provide life essentials that would not otherwise be available to them. In fact, according to a recent Cornell University study half of Americans who receive some form of government aid “swear” they don’t get help from the government. That includes aid from programs like Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, Head Start, student loans, subsidized housing and more.
One of the saddest truths about wealth inequality and the current state of the economy is that Corporate America has written off the vanishing middle class, concluding that the wealth gap will be a permanent fixture. Ellen Byron writing in the Wall Street Journal on September 12, 2011 about the emerging “hourglass economy” — a situation that has accelerated since the financial collapse in 2008 — reveals that corporations like Proctor and Gamble, Saks Inc., H.J Heinz Co. and others are revving up their product development and marketing for the two surviving dominant consumer groups: the rich at the top of the hourglass and the poor at the bottom. Further evidence that the ranks of the lowest end consumer group are growing and that the hourglass economy is gaining more traction is that the dollar stores are now a serious competitor to Walmart.
Then there’s the paradox of corporate earnings reaching new heights while the American job market is sluggish if not on stall, poverty is rising, food stamp use is at an all-time high, homelessness is increasing and home foreclosures continue to bring misery to vast numbers of Americans. How is it that corporate profits can soar while American workers suffer? Here’s an anecdote that tells it all.
My friend Amit came to the U.S from India 15 years ago and landed an information technology job with one of the leading tech companies in upstate New York. A year ago he was laid off, along with more than a hundred of his colleagues. His job was outsourced to India.
American corporations and businesses profiting from cheap labor oversees, is the major factor driving the bulk of our population into the bottom end of the hourglass. Without well-paying middle class jobs for American workers that situation is unlikely to change. As Shakespeare observed, “… increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on.”
Corporations and business feeding on cheap labor overseas will only increase their gluttony, unless something dramatic intercedes to reverse course. Will that happen? Not likely unless the eighty percent realizes its potential and becomes an organized Goliath. In the battle for economic fairness and a more equitable distribution of wealth, the sling shot of David will not work.
The initial task then is to make the eighty percent aware: “That’s me.” That means you: police, fire fighters, teachers, and other municipal workers; you are part of the endangered middle-class species and may very well lose your jobs and pensions as states and cities increasingly face bankruptcy. And if we take the eighty percent figure seriously, it means almost all workers in all sectors are potentially on the chopping block, as well as their pensions and benefits.
The signs are already in place that the prospects for the middle class are dimming. Towns across America are shutting off street lights at night because they can’t afford their electric bills. And school districts in 21 states are doing the unthinkable. They are cutting back the school week to four days.
Will education suffer even more if the business world concludes that we will have a sufficient number of elite educated college graduates in the workforce for America to still excel in innovation, while educated foot soldiers for the corporate trenches can be secured abroad at bargain basement salaries? Rick Santorum hinted at that during his campaign when he told young people: “You don’t have to go to college.”
Without the restoration of middle class jobs for Americans, the lights will not go back on and support for education will continue to fade.
As the Occupy movement plans its spring and summer offensive, raising the consciousness of the 80 percent of Americans at the bottom of the wealth gap should be number one on the agenda. Little will change until a critical mass of the eighty percent wake up.