The absurdities of today’s extreme economic inequality are easiest to see and quantify at the top.
The combined wealth of the Forbes 400, the richest billionaires in America, is worth more than all the assets belonging to the bottom 64% of the national population. Or even more pointed, at the very tip-top of the money mountain, three men – Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates of Micosoft and Warren Buffett of Berkshire-Hathaway are wealthier than the entire bottom half of the country combined.
Crazy, huh? You could make a case that never in history has anyone been as rich as these guys.
But the real craziness, the craziness that kills, is at the bottom of the ladder, where life is, or always has the potential to be, a complete disaster. By the latest figures compiled by the progressive Washington-based think tank the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), when it comes to savings, or wealth or salable possessions, one in five American families has none, or owes money. That’s the bottom 20% of the country with zero or negative net worth.
These are the people living paycheck to paycheck, week to week, one bad break – a fire, flood or medical emergency – and they’re living on the street. These are the people, working full-time or close to it, and having no bad breaks, who are living in their car, “shopping” at the food bank, covering their kids with somebody else’s hand-me-downs from the thrift shop.
Bad as this contrast may seem, the top 1% accruing wealth at historic rates while the collective “rest of us” 99% see our nest eggs flatlining or declining, and the bottom 20% on the edge of despair, there is worse news, worse numbers.
Even in inequality, race and ethnicity push America’s extremities even farther. Among African Americans, the percentage with zero net worth is 37% (three out of eight) and for Latinos 33% (one out of three). Put another way, in more IPS statistics the median wealth – half of families have more, half have less – for white families in America today is $147,000, for Latinos $6,600, for African-American families $3,600.
Chuck Collins is the Director the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org. He is author of the popular book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green). His new book, Is Inequality in America Irreversible? is published by the Oxford, UK-based Polity Press.
He is an expert on U.S. inequality and the racial wealth divide and author of several books, including 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It. He is co-author with Bill Gates Sr. of Wealth and Our Commonwealth, (Beacon Press, 2003), a case for taxing inherited fortunes. He is co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy, a book about Christian ethics and economic life. He was featured in this interview in Sun Magazine.
He is co-author of several IPS reports including “The Road To Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class,” “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us” and “Gilded Giving: Top Heavy Philanthropy in an Age of Extreme Inequality.”
He is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders, high-income households and partners working together to promote shared prosperity and fair taxation. This network merged in 2015 with the Patriotic Millionaires. In 1995, he co-founded United for a Fair Economy (UFE) to raise the profile of the inequality issue and support popular education and organizing efforts to address inequality. He was Executive Director of UFE from 1995-2001 and Program Director until 2005.