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The Commons
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Voices / Viewpoint

It is class warfare. You lost.

Half the population of the country is no less hard-working, able, and motivated than they were when they were doing better. Nor are the top 1 percent that much more worthy.

Tom Franks has experience in private, nonprofit, and governmental organizations. He has a master of science in environmental management and policy from Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute.

Originally published in The Commons issue #415 (Wednesday, July 5, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.



It’s not fashionable to talk about class in the United States, but we’ve got it. It is based on money.

Unless you are in the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans (165,000 households), you and your demographic peers have lost ground. In 2016, these top households had a net worth of at least $30 million (I wonder if the president qualifies) and income of over $1.1 million dollars (I suspect the President made it).

The top 1 percent are doing well — not as well as the top 0.1 percent, but the data to compare them to the rest of us is more readily available, so I’ll use that. It’s not totally fair to those 1-percenters who are much more like the rest of us than they are like the 0.1-percenters, so if I know any of you personally, please forgive me.

First, some context.

In 2016, your family was in the top 1 percent if your income exceeded $288,000. Exceeding $104,982 got your family into the top 10 percent, and breaking $37,848 got you into the top 50 percent of income earners.

Think about it for a moment: Half the families in the richest nation on Earth earned less than $37,848 in the same year that 1 percent of the families earned over $288,000.

The differences get even greater when you talk about wealth (how much you’ve got compared to how much you owe in terms of dollars, or net worth).

If your net worth was over $7,869,549, congratulations — you made it into the top 1 percent. However, you’re a long way from the top 0.1 percent (net worth over $30 million). But you’re not so far from the top as the rest of the population.

The top 10 percent, if you round in millions, were $30 million away from the top 0.1 percent in terms of wealth. The wealthiest families in the bottom half of our nation had about a quarter of 1 percent (0.26 percent) of the wealth of the poorest top 0.1 percent of families.

* * *

By now, you’re probably asking, “So, what’s the point?”

For the last 45 years or so, both wealth and income have, more or less steadily, been pushed up hill. It’s a matter of accepted wisdom that “the rich get richer.” Here, we measure by how much.

The total share of all the wealth of the United States owned by the least wealthy half of the population peaked at 2.57 percent in 1987. Half our citizens owned less than 3 percent of the country at the high-water mark of their wealth since 1966.

This half of our population owned 0.06 percent of our country’s vast wealth in 2014, the most recent year in the data source. This is actually better than previous 6 years, where the net wealth of half our population was negative, meaning they owed more than they owned.

In terms of loss, it’s darn close to 100 percent since the peak.

Not only have these folks have lost ground since 1987, 49 percent of the rest of the population has as well. The share of U.S. wealth owned by the next-wealthiest 40 percent fell from 35.6 percent to 27.3 percent, a loss of 8.3 percent.

Families in the 9 percent below the top 1 percent had their share of U.S. wealth decline from 37.1 percent to 35.2 percent, or by almost 2 percent.

And finally — you guessed it — the top 1 percent made out pretty well, increasing their share of U.S. wealth by 12.8 percent.

* * *

Here’s another way to look at it. From 1987, the wealthiest 1 percent increased their share of our country’s wealth by 52 percent, while the next wealthiest lost 5 percent, the next wealthiest after that group lost 23 percent, and least wealthy half — half, for crying out loud — lost roughly 98 percent of their share of wealth in the U.S.A.

The income peak for lower income for half the population was in 1969. Using that as a comparison year, the change in share of income is: top 1 percent up 115 percent; second 9 percent up 5 percent, third 40 percent down 11 percent, and lowest earning half — again, half for crying out loud — down 50 percent.

There is no evidence that the half the population of the country is any less hard-working, able, and motivated than they were when they were doing better.

Nor is there any evidence at all that the top 1 percent is that much more worthy.

In a single family, wealth and income can change in moment. Many people are one accident, one illness, one crime, or even one mistake away from plummeting to the bottom of the income and wealth scale.

But at the level of a whole country, it takes a concerted effort to shift wealth and income. The New Deal, and many years of government policy afterwards, shifted income and wealth towards those less privileged, if no less deserving.

Let’s call what we‘re looking at the Raw Deal.

* * *

The trend lines of wealth and income at the very top start rising around the beginning of the Reagan presidency, with policies that shift the burden of support by our government away from those that can most afford to pay while allowing children in our country to experience homelessness (1 in 30 in 2014) and hunger (274,000 households with children experienced very low food security in 2014) , and live without health insurance (4.5 percent in 2017).

In the most recent, and fortunately failed, Raw Deal policy attempt, a tax-cut bill masquerading as health-care reform was recently withdrawn, at least for now. Trumpcare would have eliminated health care for 24 million people and given an average tax break of over $7 million per year to the 400 wealthiest families in America, who as far as we can tell didn’t ask for it. They certainly don’t need it.

Tax policy, campaign finance policy, education policy, environmental policy — the list goes on. Pick a government policy, and I’ll bet someone can find an aspect of it that redistributes wealth or income.

This in itself is not a problem. Some things are good for one segment of the population; some things for another. It’s the give and take of government, democracy, society.

However, it is a problem when governmental policies over the long term serve only a very small segment of the population.

And the numbers show that we’ve got a problem.

The question is: Can we build a solution?

What do you think? Leave us a comment

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