Jan 23 2014

Poorer than we thought

Published by at 1:09 pm under Rainey

rainey BARRETT


A statistic hit the media during the last few days – a statistic so startling and unbelievable that I read right past it before doing the classic “double take” and reading it again. And again. And again and again!

Here it is. Just 85 individuals hold HALF THE WEALTH of the entire world! Those 85 versus the rest of us! Those 85 versus more than 300 billion of us! Just let your head play with that immense statistic. Take a couple of minutes. I’ll wait.

Let’s just deal with our own little country of the U.S. of A. Of course, you know the wealthy are much wealthier than the rest of us. But did you ever think they’d be 288 times wealthier? That much? Yep. That much. So says the Economic Policy Institute in its newest survey of how rich we are – or how much poorer we are.

In 1962, the top 1% – you remember them – well, back then they had 125 times the worth of America’s median household. Jump forward to 2010 and it increased to that 288!

Two reasons, actually. The rich really did get richer. And the middle class really did get poorer. While the 1% saw its average wealth grow from $9.6 million in 1983 to $16.4 million in 2010, we in the middle class saw our household net worth drop from $73,000 to $57,000 during the same period.

And here’s something more depressing to think about – while you’re still thinking about that previously depressing statistic. If middle class income had grown at the same rate as the top 1% during that 27 year period, yours and mine would have gone from that $73,000 to – wait for it – $119,000!

All of this is based on a lengthy statistical examination by EPI of income, jobs, mobility, poverty, wealth and a few other factors.

While that wealth gap has been widening for a decade or more, it was the “Great Recession” starting about 2008 that really changed the picture. From that point to 2010, median income of the wealthiest households declined about 15.6%. But, for all the rest of us in the supposed “middle income” grouping, we lost 47.1% during that same time.

I hate talking about statistics. But I gotta throw in a couple more. At the end of that same period – 2008 to 2010 – the typical black household ended up with a median net worth of $4,900! And the median net worth of Latino families plummeted 86.3% to about $1,300. $1,300!!!

Biggest reason those two groups fell so far off the economic cliff is because of the much smaller net worth before the bottom dropped out, so the percentages were more adversely affected. That – and the fact that their home ownership rates grew faster during the housing boom but fell further when things collapsed.

So, will all this affect future elections? You damn betcha. I’ll leave all the really tough brain twisting to more scholarly types. And, believe me, you’re going to hear a great deal from them about how this huge disparity still affects all our lives in many, many ways. But here are a couple of thoughts – off the top of my gray head – based on some lengthy experience.

With neither political party conducting the policy and vision discussions they should have in recent months, the most-heard stories of past campaigns were about money. Not who had it – or didn’t – but about who was spending it, how much and for what. Billionaires. PACS and SuperPACS. Unions. Republican and Democrat campaign committees. Congressional PACS. Candidate campaigns. A hundred million or two for this state. A few million more over there. Dollars were constantly being tossed around in amounts most of us couldn’t fathom. More than an “embarrassment of riches” it was a “prostitution of riches” when compared to the current economic lives – and economic experiences – of the rest of us.

When the value of your home is gone – or underwater – it’s hard to get worked up over some stranger’s political future. When your job is gone, feeding, clothing and housing a family block out nearly all the extraneous noise emanating from campaigns. In fact, a few recent conversations I’ve had reveal most of us folks in the middle – or at the bottom – had damned little time to listen to – or much inclination to get all involved with – anyone’s candidacy. Too busy and/or couldn’t relate.

In times like that, billionaires and millionaires – whether trying to win an election or buy one – don’t get our full civic attention. Nor – under normal priorities – should they. So, without new, updated and personally meaningful information about policies and visions from major candidates, our national voting patterns typically revert to what they’ve been before. Even though Democrats ran far more programs to reach out to minority groups, they couldn’t possibly have reached all the millions of ‘em who marked that side of the ballot.

So, black and Latino communities defaulted to the Democrat Party as they have historically. With talk of “self deportation” and “I won’t support the Dream Act” and “Arizona’s tough deportation law should be the pattern for the nation” and “Medicare and Medicaid spending must be reduced” – well – in the absence of more positive and welcoming news from a candidate or a campaign, it’s not hard to support the “home team.”

Over the last 40-50 years, Republicans have not been good at spending money on the poor. That’s just fact. Now, we have a GOP crowd in Congress carrying out that tradition by vowing more tax relief for the folks that are 288 times richer than most of us. They would do so by cutting programs like Medicare and Medicaid a lot of folks who voted Democrat are concerned about. The ones with the $1,300 and $4,900 household median net worth.

Will the Republican Party become more appealing to the large blocks of voters who sank so many of their candidates last time around when we get to 2014? And 2016? Or even 2020? Not likely at this point.

When someone piles all the data on my kitchen table that says the top 1% is 288 times wealthier than the rest of us, the depth of my feeling is not with them but with the family at the $4,900 and the $1,300 net worth levels.

And I’m not alone.

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