Our grow­ing wealth gap, by the num­bers

The three rich­est Amer­i­cans have more wealth than the bot­tom half of the coun­try.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie

It can be hard to grasp just how much money is con­cen­trated in just a few hands in our lop­sided econ­omy to­day. But here’s a start: The rich­est three peo­ple in the United States — Jeff Be­zos, Bill Gates and War­ren Buf­fett — to­gether have more wealth than the en­tire bot­tom half of the coun­try com­bined.

To put an even finer point on it: That’s three peo­ple ver­sus about 160 mil­lion peo­ple.

To re­ally com­pre­hend just how in­sane the wealth con­cen­tra­tion has be­come, con­sider Be­zos, the head of Ama­zon. Worth about $90 bil­lion, he re­cently was de­clared the rich­est man in the world. In Oc­to­ber alone, his wealth jumped by $10 bil­lion — or about $4 mil­lion per sec­ond.

Given his mas­sive wealth, one might imag­ine that his com­pany has enough to pay its ware­house work­ers a min­i­mum of $15 an hour. But ap­par­ently it doesn’t. Ama­zon pays some of it work­ers as lit­tle as $12.84 an hour.

That’s pretty much the trend we’re see­ing play out over and over across the U.S. econ­omy— wealth fun­nel­ing to a tiny group at the top while ev­ery­one else scram­bles for crumbs.

On the other end of the spec­trum from Be­zos, tens of mil­lions of fam­i­lies are try­ing to make their pay­checks last through the week. One in 5 house­holds has zero or neg­a­tive wealth to­day, mean­ing they have as much debt as they do as­sets. (That’s why the three-ver­sus-160 mil­lion fig­ure is so stark: Many peo­ple have noth­ing.)

Hav­ing no sav­ings or wealth means hav­ing no cush­ion to fall back on when you’re hit with the un­ex­pected — an ill­ness or med­i­cal emer­gency that re­sults in large hospi­tal bills, say, or the loss of a job. With no buf­fer, even a bro­k­endown car can wreak fi­nan­cial havoc on a fam­ily, turn­ing a sta­ble sit­u­a­tion into quick­sand. We see this domino ef­fect play out all the time, as our so­cial me­dia feeds are filled with crowd­fund­ing re­quests by peo­ple who need help cov­er­ing ba­sic life ex­penses.

Not sur­pris­ingly, th­ese zero-wealth house­holds are dis­pro­por­tion­ately African Amer­i­can or Latino, a re­sult of our coun­try’s his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Three in 10 black house­holds are un­der­wa­ter. Nearly the same pro­por­tion of Latino house­holds are too.

The prob­lem is get­ting worse, not bet­ter. To­day, the poor­est mem­ber of the Forbes 400 has $2 bil­lion. This rep­re­sents a ten­fold jump from when the mag­a­zine first started its list in 1982. And that’s af­ter ad­just­ing for inf la­tion.

In fact, with a com­bined wealth of $2.68 tril­lion, the bil­lion­aires of the Forbes 400 have more wealth than the en­tire GDP of the United King­dom, the world’s fifth-wealth­i­est coun­try. This marks yet an­other ten­fold in­crease from the 1980s.

The rest of the coun­try has not shared in the eco­nomic gains of the last three decades.

In 1983, the first year the Fed­eral Re­serve started col­lect­ing con­sis­tent data, the me­dian fam­ily had $83,000 in to­day’s terms. That num­ber has now fallen to $80,000.

In other words, while to­day’s 400 rich­est Amer­i­cans are 10 times richer than 1983’s rich­est Amer­i­cans, the av­er­age fam­ily is worse off than the av­er­age fam­ily 34 years ago.

The few at the top of the lad­der have cap­tured a mas­sive share of the na­tion’s wealth, and they’re quickly trans­lat­ing that wealth into po­lit­i­cal power — push­ing for more tax cuts for them­selves, to be shep­herded through the leg­isla­tive process by politi­cians who are in­debted to them for their cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. This is a moral dis­grace.

We ur­gently need to close, not ex­pand, our wealth di­vide. And we need to start by say­ing no to more tax cuts for the wealthy and grow­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery­one else. Enough is enough.

Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie are coau­thors of a new re­port, “Bil­lion­aire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us.” They co-edit the web­site In­equal­ity.org at the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies.

Em­manuel Du­nand AFP/Getty Images

JEFF BE­ZOS, the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ama­zon, is the rich­est per­son in the world.

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