We Can Do Better Than This

The decline of the middle class combined with growing income inequality is a national scandal -- which Congress must address.
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Let's be very clear. A vicious and premeditated class warfare is being waged today against the American middle class. Poverty is increasing and tens of millions are working longer hours for lower wages. Meanwhile, the richest people have not had it so good since the 1920s, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. For the first time in the modern history of our country it is likely that the younger generation will have a lower standard of living than their parents as the American Dream becomes an economic nightmare. The time is long overdue for members of Congress to look beyond the needs of their wealthy campaign contributors and begin addressing the issue of income and wealth disparity.

The statistics on income distribution in the U.S. are staggering in their inequality. According to the latest analysis, in 2005 the top 1 percent earned more income than the bottom 50 percent of Americans -- with the top 300,000 earners making more money than the bottom 150 million. While the top-earning 0.01 percent received an average income increase of $4.4 million in 2005, the bottom 90 percent saw their average income decline by about $172.

The unfair distribution of wealth is even more appalling. Forbes magazine recently found that the richest 400 Americans were worth $1.54 trillion in 2006, up $290 billion from the previous year. In other words, while inflation-adjusted real wages declined for the vast majority of workers, the top 400 wealthiest individuals saw, on average, a $750 million increase.

Today, disgracefully and despite all the rhetoric of "family values," the United States has, at 18 percent, the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country. Since George Bush has been president, nearly 5 million more Americans have slipped into poverty, 8.6 million have lost their health insurance, 3 million have lost their pensions and median family income has declined by about $2,500. So much for the president's "compassionate conservatism."

A two-income family has less disposable income today than a one-income family did 30 years ago. Home foreclosures are now the highest on record. More and more workers are now spending more than half of their limited incomes for housing, leaving less for other basic needs.

As 35 million Americans struggled to put food on the table last year and the number of hungry Americans continues to rise, the richest people in our society are emulating the robber-barons of the late 19th century as they garishly look for ways to spend their fortunes. Instead of moving toward a more just and egalitarian society, we are rapidly moving in the opposite direction -- extreme wealth and extreme poverty and growing desperation in the middle.

Robert Frank, a Wall Street Journal reporter, has detailed the lives of the rich and famous in the book Richistan. He writes that households with a net worth of between $100 million and $1 billion last year spent an average of $182,000 on watches. Meanwhile, in the real world, 400,000 qualified students were unable to go to college because they lacked the funds.

Frank also details how during this one-year period the economically elite households spent $311,000 on cars, $397,000 on jewelry and $169,000 on spa services. At the same time, President Bush presented a budget in which he proposed cuts that would deny child care to 300,000 families and food stamps for 280,000 families.

The decline of the middle class combined with growing income inequality is a national scandal -- which Congress must address. While there are many actions that must be taken, let me focus on five that I will be pursuing:

1) Getting our national priorities right: By rescinding Bush's tax cuts for the rich and cutting back on wasteful and unnecessary military programs, we can raise about $130 billion a year. This money should be spent on the needs of our children, disabled, seniors, veterans and other vulnerable populations - as well as deficit reduction.

2) Ending the race to the bottom: We must move from unfettered free trade to fair trade and change trade policies which benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of the working people of this country and the poor abroad.

3) Allowing workers to form unions: Due to unfair labor policies it is almost impossible for workers to organize unions. Labor law reform is needed to allow workers to exercise their constitutional right for collective bargaining.

4) Health Care for all: Despite spending twice as much per capita, we are the only major nation on earth that does not provide health care for all. We must move toward a national health care program guaranteeing health care for every man, woman and child.

5) Reversing global warming and rebuilding our infrastructure: We can create millions of good paying jobs by investing in energy efficiency and sustainable energies such as solar, wind and geo-thermal. We must also rebuild our deteriorating physical infrastructure and rail system.

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