For the past half century, Americans have allowed the wealthy to get away with economic murder. Income inequality has risen to pre-Great Depression levels. Compensation for CEOs skyrocketed while wages for the rest stagnated. The wealthy received fat tax breaks even as workers got a pittance. Just this month, America’s high rollers bought dozens of paintings at prices tens of millions higher than anticipated during auctions at hoity-toity Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
And all of this has occurred with barely more than a peep of protest from the populace, no more than a few here today, gone tomorrow Occupy Wall Street sit-ins.
This month is not, however, business as usual. Two Mondays ago, a bunch of dedicated rabble-rousers launched a new Poor People’s Campaign. Thousands demonstrated in Washington, D.C., including members of the union I lead, the United Steelworkers. The group, led by the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, plans actions in 30 states over 40 days. This past week, dozens of Poor People’s Campaign activists were again arrested in Washington, D.C., as they demanded restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
The campaign is dedicated to the idea that “people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist.” Its revival could not be more urgent or timely.
The original Poor People’s Campaign was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, who wanted to expand the fight for civil rights to include a movement against the indignities of poverty across all racial lines. Dr. King was assassinated before he formally launched the campaign, but his supporters took up the cause beginning with an encampment in Washington, D.C., in 1968.
Fifty years later, income inequality is worse. The poverty rate declined from 1968 through 1975 then remained fairly steady since, though it is higher now than in 1975. Deep poverty has increased. According to the U.S. Census, 43 million Americans live in poverty. The Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, estimates that there are 140 million Americans who are either impoverished or so low-income that they are unable to routinely afford food, clothing and utilities. Dr. King would be appalled.
The United Way tracks this latter group, which they refer to as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). These are Americans who work hard and are above the formal poverty line but who live paycheck to paycheck and experience a major financial crisis when a car breaks down or a child falls ill.
NPR found such a couple in Kansas City, Missouri. Terrance Wise works for $10.25 an hour at McDonald’s. His fiancé gets $12 an hour as a home health care worker. Still, Wise told the NPR reporter, he skips meals as the couple struggles to support their three daughters.
Full-time workers suffering from hunger can be explained by this: The portion of national income that goes to workers has declined. It was 64.5 percent in 1973. Now, it’s 56.8 percent. For the bottom half of all earners, their share of income declined from 20 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2014.
Meanwhile, the numbers are great for the richest. The top 1 percent got 12 percent of income in 1980. They took 20 percent in 2014. For the richest of the rich, the top .001 percent, the boost is staggering. Their incomes rose 636 percent in that same period.
This is reflected in the CEO-to-worker pay ratios that federal legislation required corporations to disclose beginning this year. The worst so far is Mattel, where the CEO took home $31.3 million, or 4,987 times the corporation’s median worker’s pay. That suggests that if 4,986 Mattel workers got together, they couldn’t do as good a job as Margo Georgiadis did, even though toy sales continued to slump under her leadership, and the board of directors dumped her earlier this year.
Similarly, the CEO at Gap made $15.6 million, which was 2,900 times the pay of the clothing company’s median worker. Like Mattel, the Gap board of directors ditched its CEO this year for poor financial performance. But before that, through quarter after quarter of sales declines and store closings, the board of directors decided that CEO Jeff Kirwan was more valuable than 2,899 Gap employees put together.
The CEO-to-worker pay ratio list is full of such examples. Corporate boards of directors apportion an excessive amount of pay to the top, even when the top bungles badly. That’s one way income inequality is sustained and worsened.
Another is through legislative action by Republicans who believe the rich deserve that pay — even when the company is failing — and that the poor are undeserving and lazy — even when they are working two or more jobs.
An example of how Republicans subsidize the rich and starve the poor is the House of Representatives’ Farm Bill that a dispute over immigration scuttled last week. Texas Republican Rep. Michael Conaway described the bill as a “safety net for farmers.” He and his cohorts intended to strengthen that safety net for farmers while at the same time stripping the food stamps safety net from 1.2 million people.
Here is what Republicans wanted to do for farmers: Give the richest even more money. The legislation would have allowed richer farmers — and each of their family members — to collect up to $125,000 annually from the federal government. The plan was for any farmer earning less than $900,000, or $1.8 million for a couple, to qualify for the $125,000, or $250,000 for a couple. In addition, the legislation would enable farmers’ cousins, nieces, nephews and other relatives to grab that $125,000 instead of just immediate family members.
Now it may seem impossible for a farmer to make that much money, and not many do. Farm households with incomes of around $250,000 — that is a quarter million dollars — accounted for only 12 percent of all farms. But those big businesses grabbed 60 percent of the subsidies in 2012.
In the same piece of legislation, Republicans attempted to take food out of the mouths of the nation’s poor. It would have required all recipients aged 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or attend job training. Any food stamp recipient who failed to meet that quota just one time — because, for example, the employer cut back work hours or a sick child needed care — would be cut off food stamps for a year. If that person fell behind again, say, by working only 19.5 hours, she would be stricken from eligibility for three years.
The food stamp “safety net” averages $125 a month. Republicans wanted to extend a “safety net” subsidy for the cousin of a fat cat factory farmer worth $10,217 a month.
It’s this sort of reverse Robin Hood policies and practices, punitive to the poor and generous to the prosperous, that the new Poor People’s Campaign will attempt to dethrone.
Leo W. Gerard is the international president of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union.