The corporate media doesn't talk about it much, but the United States is rapidly on its way to becoming three separate nations.
First, there are a small number of incredibly wealthy people who own and control more and more of our country. Second, there is a shrinking middle class in which ordinary people are, in most instances, working longer hours for lower wages and benefits. Third, an increasing number of Americans are living in abject poverty - going hungry and sleeping out on the streets.
There has always been a wealthy elite in this country, and there has always been a gap between the rich and the poor. But the disparities in wealth and income that currently exist in this country have not been seen in over a hundred years. Today, the richest one percent own more wealth than the bottom ninety-five percent, and the CEOs of large corporations earn more than 500 times what their average employees make. The nation's 13,000 wealthiest families, 1/100th of one percent of the population, receive almost as much income as the poorest 20 million families in America.
While the rich get richer and receive huge tax breaks from the White House, the middle class is struggling to keep its head above water. The unemployment rate rose to a nine-year high of 6.4 percent in June, 2003. There are now 9.4 million unemployed, up more than 3 million since just before Bush became President. Since March, 2001, we have lost over 2.7 million jobs in the private sector, including two million decent-paying manufacturing jobs - ten percent of our manufacturing sector. Frighteningly, the hemorrhaging of decent paying jobs is now moving into the white-collar sector. Forrester Research Inc. predicts that at least 3.3 million information technology jobs will be lost to low-wage countries by 2015 with the expansion of digitization, the internet and high-speed data networks.
But understanding the pain and anxiety of the middle class requires going beyond the unemployment numbers. There are tens of millions of fully employed Americans who today earn, in inflation adjusted-dollars, less money than they received 30 years ago. In 1973, private-sector workers in the United States were paid on average $9.08 an hour. Today, in real wages, they are paid $8.33 per hour - more than 8 percent lower. Manufacturing jobs that once paid a living wage are now being done in China, Mexico and other low-wage countries as corporate America ships its plants abroad.
With Wal-Mart replacing General Motors as our largest employer, many workers in the service economy not only earn low wages but also receive minimal benefits. Further, as the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs soar, more and more employers are forcing workers to assume a greater percentage of their health care costs. It is not uncommon now that increases in health care costs surpass the wage increases that workers receive - leaving them even further behind. With the support of the Bush Administration many companies are also reducing the pensions they promised to their older workers - threatening the retirement security of millions of Americans.
One of the manifestations of the collapse of the middle class is the increased number of hours that Americans are now forced to work in order to pay the bills. Today, the average American employee works, by far, the longest hours of any worker in the industrialized world. And the situation is getting worse. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization the average American last year worked 1,978 hours, up from 1,942 hours in 1990 - an increase of almost a week of work. We are now putting more hours into our work than at any time since the 1920s. Sixty-five years after the formal establishment of the 40-hour work week under the Fair Labor Standards Act, almost 40% of Americans now work more than 50 hours a week.
And if the middle class is having it tough, what about the 33 million people in our society who are living in poverty, up 1.3 million in the past two years? What about the 11 million trying to make it on a pathetic minimum wage of $5.15 an hour? What about the 42 million who lack any health insurance? What about the 3.5 million people who will experience homelessness in this year, 1.3 million of them children? What about the elderly who can't afford the outrageously high cost of the prescription drugs they need? What about the veterans who are on VA waiting lists for their health care?
This country needs to radically rethink our national priorities. The middle class is the backbone of America and it cannot be allowed to disintegrate. We need to revitalize American democracy, and create a political climate where government makes decisions which reflect the needs of all the people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors. We need to see the middle class expand, not collapse.
Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the only Independent in the U.S. House