In what was once the land of economic opportunity and freedom, life is getting worse for the vast majority of Americans.
For 40 years, income for ordinary workers — real median wages — have been stagnant, despite real GDP per capita which is 78% higher now than in 1980. This is despite labor productivity and GDP per capita increasing steadily. (Some useful graphs showing the trends here) (More good illustrations showing economic data here)
But real incomes have actually been declining if you use the old measure of inflation — over the years the government has changed the way inflation is calculated. This decline is a two edged sword: labor participation is falling and workers real wages are falling.
On top of that fundamental problem of the income floor dropping out from under us, there are other major factors that have been making life worse for millions of Americans.
Tens of millions of people — especially Black, Latino and low income white people — have gone to prison over the past few decades for minor crimes that few other countries would ever consider worthy of incarceration — crimes such as possession of marijuana which is fast becoming decriminalized now.
Millions of Americans — mostly from lower income families — have performed military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest wars in American history. Some of those patriots have served more and longer tours than America has ever asked from previous generations of troops.
We owe these veterans an immeasurable debt but we welcomed them home with deplorable job opportunities, skyrocketing housing and tuition costs, and a crisis in health care when they need it most.
At one time, not that long ago, a student who worked at a minimum wage job over summer and holiday breaks could be able to cover the total cost of attending a four-year state university, including room and board. That is not possible anymore.
A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. A decade after the onset of the Great Recession, nearly 39 million American families live in housing they cannot afford, out of the total 126 million households in the United States.
Speaking of health care, it’s been getting harder and harder to afford. Instead of making health care more affordable, Obamacare has increased costs while making working Americans pay private companies for insurance plans that leave people unable to see a doctor when they get sick or injured due to high deductibles or inaccessibility of ‘in network’ providers.
Over the 33 years from 1947 to 1980, average reported taxable incomes rose in real terms, adjusted for inflation, by 87%. The incomes of the bottom 90%, the top 10%, and the top 0.01%, rose by almost exactly the same amount, while the incomes of the top 1% and top 0.1% also went up substantially (by 57% and 63% respectively).
From 1980 to 2012, average income rose only by 24%, although real GDP per capita rose by 73% over that period. But while average household incomes increased, the bottom 90% saw their real earnings fall by 6%. Instead, the rich made staggering gains: by 80% for the top 10%, by 178% for the top 1%, by 312% for the top 0.1%, and by an astounding 431% for the top 0.01%.
The richest one percent of the population owned about 22 percent of all the nation’s wealth in 1980. Now, that tiny fraction owns close to 40 percent of everything.
America is not a poor nation. If someone tells you ‘we are broke,’ they are lying, pure and simple. The problem is not how much wealth is in America, the problem is how that wealth is divided among working class families and the greedy rich.
By changing our policies to make the rich pay a fair share of taxes once again, America could properly care for its veterans, reinstitute expanded free public education, make health care a human right, assure access to affordable housing and make investments in transportation, water systems, the energy grid and communication networks so there are plenty of good jobs for everyone.
Changing policies means winning elections for candidates who understand justice and economics. Life is getting worse for most Americans, but most of our problems are man-made and we can fix them if we have faith in ourselves plus the courage to take action. If you want to help, get involved with groups like Democrats for Change, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats or Brand New Congress. or one of the many Indivisible Movement chapters forming around the nation.
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