According to a Harvard University study published late last year, most Americans believe that the richest 20 percent of Americans own just half of the nation’s wealth. Wrong! The top 20 percent own 93 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the top 1 percent own 40 percent of that wealth. Additionally, the top 10 percent of earners in 2017 took home more than half the nation’s income, the greatest share by far in over a century.
Income inequality severely damages our economy. According to Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, as wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small minority, the earnings of the majority fall, significantly reducing demand in the economy. The two major financial crises this country has experienced—in 1929 and 2008—both coincided with record levels of inequality.
Our ignorance concerning just how unequal our society is, and its impact, is shocking. Income inequality forces us into debt, affects our health and welfare and—more than ever—threatens our future and that of our children. Income inequality contributes to economic instability, financial crises, debt and inflation. There is less social mobility, a significant increase in drug addiction and students demonstrate measurably lower test scores in math, reading and science.
How does economic inequality affect us locally, those who are living in one of the richest counties in the country? As wealthier neighbors become ever more affluent, middle-income Americans feel relatively poorer and, research shows, they tend to spend more. Pressure to buy expensive cars, take costly vacations and keep up with the Joneses leads to an increase in personal bankruptcies and a plummeting savings rate.
Research conducted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that middle-income women living in areas with disproportionate income streams are nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression compared to women living in areas that have a more equal income distribution.
American life expectancy has, overall, begun to decrease (despite our excessive investment in a broken health care system); however, research also shows that for individuals functioning at the upper end of the income ladder, life expectancy continues to rise. An article in the Washington Post, written by Monique Morrissey, a lead economist at the Economic Policy Institute, discusses the Republican Party’s enduring quest to raise the retirement age of Social Security, which will amount to a significant benefit cut for most middle-income Americans.
Widespread economic inequality also leads to lower levels of representative democracy, as citizens become convinced that the government only serves and represents the interests of the rich. The recent tax overhaul passed by the Republican-dominated Congress, distinctly favoring the top 1 percent, is a prime example. Trump’s tax cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the national deficit this year alone, killing numerous social welfare programs and forestalling any prospect of badly needed infrastructure improvements.
Today’s political candidates—especially given the Republican Party’s relationship with the Koch brothers—rely more on deep-pocketed campaign donors than at any other time since the early 1970s, when Congress first enacted campaign finance laws. As the rich become richer and secure more political influence, they support policies that make them wealthier at the expense of everyone else.
Why are Americans so dumb? Sixty-three million Americans walked into voting booths in November 2016 and pulled the lever for Donald Trump—a snake oil salesman. How could anyone have imagined that Trump would turn out to be a president who cared about anyone but himself?
Wealthy domestic and foreign interests worked tirelessly to get Trump elected, and their use of fake news was employed strategically. And Trump himself, a master at self-promotion, a man who had more than 30 million followers on Twitter during the campaign, a con artist who lied constantly and misled effortlessly, was the leader of the pack.
Today, 100 million Americans get their “news” from social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, filled with false and misleading stories. And let’s not forget the Fox News Network, a veritable beacon of bigotry, stupidity and misinformation, and brought to you by a crew of smug, rich, angry white people.
But we’ve been heading down this slippery slope of intellectual decay for decades now:
We elect Republicans who want to dismantle our health care system, the U.S. being the only wealthy industrialized nation without a universal health care system. Instead, we have a system run by profit-making insurance companies whose only true concern is their investors.
We tolerate having a corrupt, undemocratic electoral system. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by more than 3 million votes. In the 2000 election, Al Gore received 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush.
We allow Republicans to gerrymander Congressional and Senate districts so effectively that, while substantially more people vote Democratic than Republican, Republicans win more seats, controlling both houses of Congress and the majority of state houses.
We spend excessive amounts of money on national defense, and often for no compelling reason. While defense contracting creates jobs and, occasionally, a technological breakthrough, unwarranted military spending is a wasteful use of public funds compared to spending on infrastructure, schools, hospitals and social services.
Yup, the rich are getting richer at our expense—and we have only have ourselves to blame.