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TIME Magazine

It’s Time to Get Billionaires Off of Welfare

The working families and middle class of this country should not have to subsidize the wealthiest people in the United States. That’s absurd. That’s what a rigged economy is all about.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the wealthiest person on Earth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He is now worth $168 billion. In fact, since the beginning of this year, his wealth has increased by about $277 million — every single day. (Photo: Blue Origin)

Year after year, decade after decade, Republicans in Washington have lectured the American people about the need for “welfare reform.” In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan railed against a fictitious “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac. Just a few years ago, Republicans turned their attention to a young surfer who used the food stamp program to purchase lobster. But if you listen closely, you will never hear much talk from our Republican colleagues about some of the biggest welfare recipients in America: The billionaire owners of some of the most profitable corporations in our country.

Here are just a few examples.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the wealthiest person on Earth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He is now worth $168 billion. In fact, since the beginning of this year, his wealth has increased by about $277 million — every single day.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bezos continues to pay many thousands of his Amazon employees wages that are so low that they must rely on food stamps, Medicaid or public housing in order to survive. In effect, the middle-class taxpayers of this country are subsidizing the low wages paid by the richest person on Earth. That’s nuts.

But Jeff Bezos and Amazon are not alone.

The Walton family of Walmart and many other billionaire-owned large and profitable corporations also get richer because of taxpayer support for their low-paid employees. The Walton family of Walmart is the wealthiest family in the country with a net worth of over $160 billion. This one family has owned more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Meanwhile, just like Amazon, Walmart pays its workers wages that are so inadequate that many of them are forced to depend upon public-assistance programs, at a cost of some $6.2 billion a yearto taxpayersin order to survive.

The fast food industry is another major recipient of corporate welfare. While the co-owner of Burger King, Jorge Paulo Lemann, has a net worth of about $25 billion, low wages at this fast-food chain cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $356 million a year. And it’s not just Burger King. McDonald’s workers are actually encouraged to sign up for government assistance— meaning the company fully acknowledges that it pays its employees wages that are non-livable.

In total, 52% of all fast food workers rely on public assistance programs to make ends meet.

The wealthy owners of big airlines are also major welfare recipients. While American Airlines made nearly $2 billion in net profits last year, and its CEO is on track to make $31 million in total compensation this year, 27% of workers at its subsidiary Envoy Air, which has over 16,000 employees, need food stamps and other forms of public assistance because of the inadequate wages they receive.

The working families and middle class of this country should not have to subsidize the wealthiest people in the United States. That’s absurd. That’s what a rigged economy is all about.

The fact is that if employers in this country simply paid workers a living wage, taxpayers would save about $150 billion a year on federal assistance programs and millions of workers would be able to live in dignity and security.

That is why we are proposing legislation to demand that billionaires get off of welfare. The bill gives large, profitable employers a choice: Pay workers a living wage or pay for the public assistance programs their low-wage employees are forced to depend upon.

Specifically, this legislation would establish a 100% tax on corporations with 500 or more employees equal to the amount of federal benefits received by their low-wage workers. For example, if a worker at Amazon receives $2,000 in food stamps, the employer would be taxed $2,000 to cover that cost.

Let us be very clear: We believe that the government has a moral responsibility to provide for the vulnerable — the children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. But we do not believe that taxpayers should have to expend huge sums of money subsidizing profitable corporations owned by some of the wealthiest people in this country.

At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, and when millions of our fellow Americans are working at starvation wages, we must create an economy that works for all — not just the people on top.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont's at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Read more at his website. Follow him on Twitter: @SenSanders or @BernieSanders

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna

US Rep. Ro Khanna is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing California's 17th District. Follow him on Twitter: @RoKhanna

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