When US leaders extol the virtues of the ''American Way'' to foreign leaders in overseas economic gatherings, they should keep in mind that at least 11 other countries rank ahead of the United States in terms of the pay and benefits their workers receive. In all of those countries, every worker is guaranteed health care, superior parental leave benefits, free or inexpensive college education for their children, and far more vacation time.
The truth of the matter is that in the ''booming economy'' of this, the richest country on earth, 30 percent of American workers earn poverty or near-poverty wages because the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and we have lost millions of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. Low-wage American workers are now the lowest-paid in the industrialized world. In this nation of ''family values,'' more than 20 percent of our children live in poverty.
Moreover, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they were 25 years ago. In 1973, the real (inflation-adjusted) hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers averaged $14.09. By 1998, that wage had fallen to $12.77. Even more alarming is that young entry-level workers without a college education saw their real wages fall by more than 20 percent between 1979 and 1997. While workers' wages have risen in the last few years, millions are still behind where they or their parents were a generation ago.
To maintain their standard of living in the face of declining wages, people in New England and throughout this country are working extraordinarily hard. Incredibly, the average American is now working an entire month longer every year than he worked just 20 years ago. According to a recent report from the International Labor Organization, employees in the United States have surpassed the Japanese and now have the dubious distinction of working the longest hours of any workers in the entire industrialized world. Our workers put in 234 more hours every year than the Canadians, 410 more than the Germans, and 567 more than the Norwegians. The number of Americans who work more than one job increased 92 percent between 1973 and 1997, and 37 percent of Americans now put in more than 50 hours a week.
The confusion over the state of the ''booming'' economy rests with the fact that some Americans are doing extremely well. In fact, the richest people in the country have never had it so good. With an explosion in the number of billionaires in recent years, and with the CEOs of major corporations now earning 419 times more than their employees, the United States has, by far, the most unfair distribution of wealth and income of any major nation. The richest 1 percent of the population now owns as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent of all Americans combined.
The time is long overdue for my colleagues in Congress to start returning the tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions that are flooding Capitol Hill from the rich and the multinational corporations. Instead, we should start representing the needs of the middle class and working families of this country. Among other things, we should:
Establish a tax on wealth so that billionaires begin paying their fair share in taxes, and reform our tax system to make it far more progressive. There is no moral excuse for some people having billions in wealth while children go hungry.
Raise the minimum wage to a living wage. The minimum wage today would have to be $7.33 an hour to have the same purchasing power it had in 1968. At a time of exploding technology and increasing productivity, no American working 40 hours a week should live in poverty.
Renegotiate our international trade agreements and address our record-breaking trade deficit. We must demand ''fair trade'' and not simply ''free trade.'' Our trade policy should be designed to protect working people and the world's environment, not just multinational corporations.
Enact a single-payer, state-administered, national health care program guaranteeing health care for all Americans. Our current system, at 14 percent of our GDP, is the most costly and wasteful in the world and leaves 80 million Americans uninsured or underinsured.
Bernie Sanders is the US representative from Vermont.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.