The media appear fixated about when and if a so-called "grand bargain" on our economy will be reached. Wrong question! The question we should be asking is: What should be in a "grand bargain" that works for the average American?
At a time when the middle class is disappearing, 46 million Americans are living in poverty and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider, we need a "grand bargain" that protects struggling working families, not billionaires.
With corporate profits at record-breaking levels while the effective corporate tax is at its lowest level since 1972, and 1 out of 4 profitable corporations pays nothing in federal income taxes, we need a grand bargain that ends corporate loopholes and demands that corporate America starts helping us with deficit reduction. We must not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor. We must not cut Social Security, disabled veterans' benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, education and other programs that provide opportunity and dignity to millions of struggling American families.
Before we pass a grand bargain, we have got to take a hard and sober look at what's happening economically in our country today. In doing so, we must acknowledge that the United States has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth and that inequality is worse today than at any time since the late 1920s. Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America -- 150 million Americans. The top 1 percent owns 38 percent of all financial wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns just 2.3 percent. Incredibly, the Federal Reserve reported last year that median net worth for middle-class families dropped by nearly 40 percent from 2007-2010. That's the equivalent of wiping out 18 years of savings for the average middle-class family.
The distribution of income is even worse. If you can believe it, the last study on the subject showed that all of the new income gained from 2009-2011 went to the top 1 percent. ALL of the new income!
In America today, the average middle-class family has seen its income go down by nearly $5,000 since 1999, adjusting for inflation. Real unemployment is not 7.7 percent, it is 14.3 percent, counting those workers who have given up looking for work or who are working part time when they want to be working full time. While youth unemployment is exceptionally high, millions of young people are struggling with student loans they can't afford to pay back. While we talk about the need to strengthen the middle class, we have to understand that more than half of the new jobs that have been created since 2010 are low-wage jobs paying people between $7.80 and $13.80 an hour.
That's the economic reality facing a large majority of our people, and that's what has to be taken into consideration when we discuss deficit reduction and a "grand bargain."
As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, here are my priorities:
We need a budget that puts millions of Americans back to work in decent-paying jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and transforming our energy sector away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy and energy efficiency.
We need a budget that keeps the promises we have made to our seniors, veterans and the most vulnerable by protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
We need a budget that makes sure that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes. We must end corporate loopholes that allow Wall Street banks, large corporations and the wealthy to avoid more than $100 billion a year in federal taxes by stashing their profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens.
A federal budget is not just a set of numbers. It is a value statement of what we, as a nation, stand for. We must fight for a grand bargain that stands for justice, opportunity and the needs of our middle class. We must reject any approach that continues the economic assault on working families.