If the rich are getting richer, what’s happening to the rest of us?
If you missed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ free showing of the documentary "Inequality for All" last weekend at Mount Anthony Union High School, it’s worth a look on Netflix or iTunes or however you can view it.
The eye-opening film by Robert Reich, former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, hammers home the idea that the majority of our country’s wealth resting in the hands of the few is continuing the erosion of the middle class.
Reich, now a professor of public policy at the University of California -- Berkeley, says in the film that the 400 wealthiest Americans hold as much of the country’s wealth as the remainder of the population (about 315 million, per census estimates).
What does that disparity do to the U.S. economy?
"It is a threat to our way of life," Reich said, noting that 95 percent of economic gains since the most recent recovery started in 2009 have gone to the country’s top 1 percent by net worth.
What would it mean to have a growing middle class rather than a disappearing one? More people with disposable income, a better-educated workforce, and a healthier workforce, for starters. As it stands now, a lot of people in what might be considered middle class roles are barely making ends meet.
"Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour," Reich wrote in a recent blog post.
He’s a proponent of raising the minimum wage, as is Sanders.
"We have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, worse today in the United States than at any time since 1928 before the Great Depression," Sanders said recently during an MSNBC interview with Ed Schultz.
While Reich may have popularized the term "income inequality," Sanders has been working to get the word out in Vermont, in the senate, and in national media.
Sanders on Sunday hosted four simultaneous free screenings of Reich’s film "Inequality for All" in the towns of Bennington, Brattleboro, Middlebury and St. Johnsbury. He "hosted" the film from Middlebury, issuing an introduction of the film beforehand and taking questions from each location after.
Bennington’s screening, held at the Mount Anthony Union High School Auditorium, drew about 50 -- a nice turnout for a Sunday morning event.
Sanders noted that income inequality is the most profound issue facing our country.
"Seventy percent of the GDP is determined by consumer spending. If the middle class does not have disposable income, then we can’t create jobs," Sanders said.
In the film, Reich proposed fixes that include raising the minimum wage, boosting public spending on education and infrastructure and raising taxes on the top earners.
"The middle class and the poor are the job creators, not the people at the top," he said. "We need to reframe the debate."
Especially alarming, said both Reich and Sanders, is the growing trend of wealthy donors giving millions upon millions to political candidates. For instance, casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson gave $93 million in donations to different groups during the 2012 presidential election, according to Sanders. About a third of that went to Restore Our Future, the Mitt Romney super PAC.
While super rich like Adelson amass seemingly boundless wealth (imagine being able to give away almost a billion dollars for a political race), wages for the working class have been staying the same or declining since the late 1970s.
"If we don’t get our act together, we are going to end up in a country where our economics and politics are controlled by a handful of individuals," Sanders said.
Both Sen. Sanders and Reich are ensuring that the debate about what our economic future should look like -- how we plan to shape it -- continues.
How can we make it better?
Laura Tyson, a former chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently wrote that "adjusted for inflation, today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is 23 percent lower than it was in 1968. If it had kept up with inflation and with average productivity growth, it would be $25 per hour. At the current level, a worker employed full-time for a year earns only $15,080 - 19 percent below the poverty line for a family of three."
Raising the minimum wage would help to bring more people out of poverty, and perhaps restore some income equality.
A June 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that income inequality has gotten worse over the past several decades due to policymakers cutting taxes on the rich -- the very top holders of wealth.
The reverse should also be true.
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