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The oligarchy is doing just fine, explains historian Juan Cole. (Image: Screenshot/AJ+/Youtube)

This Labor Day, US Workers One-Third Poorer Than in 2003—While Top 1% Now Two-Times Richer

The poor got significantly poorer in the past two decades, and the rich got significantly richer

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

On Labor Day, American workers have little to celebrate. That’s alright. The September Labor Day, while initially proposed by some workers in the 1880s, was backed by conservative President Grover Cleveland over May 1, which he associated with radicalism (i.e. with workers who would demand their rights). So it really isn’t for the workers, it is for the bosses.

David Harrison at the Wall Street Journal reports that the lower 50% of US households by wealth have 32% less wealth than in 2003 in real numbers.

They have only now, in 2009, finally regained the wealth they lost in the Great Bush near-Depression of 2007-2009.

So they’ve gotten back to what they had in the way of assets (home value and other valuables; probably not stocks, since that half of Americans doesn’t typically own securities) in 2007, but not what they had in 2003.

There are 129 million households in the United States, so this means about 64.5 million households are one-third worse off with regard to asset ownership than when Bush went to war in Iraq. (Is there a connection?)

In contrast, the top 1% of households, 1.29 million of them, have twice as many assets as they did in 2003.

Harrison says that the rate of increase in inequality in wealth holdings is even greater than that in income.

Speaking of income, the average wage of the average worker in real terms has been static for decades. Americans after WW II were used to getting better off each year. Those who aren’t wealthy haven’t, since about 1970.

The poor got significantly poorer in the past two decades, and the rich got significantly richer. This broad social trend helps to explain our politics, in which workers suffer from frequent wage theft (a technique Trump perfected), from wages on which most people can’t actually live, and from downward mobility.

The other part of our politics is our plutocracy, in which a small number of billionaires runs the society for their own profit and benefit. Campaign finance laws have been gutted by the Republicans on the Supreme Court, so that a nonentity like Trump could use his ill-gotten gains to more or less just buy the election, along with his dark-money backers. Trump repaid the backers by cutting taxes massively on the top 1%, creating a $1 trillion a year Federal budget deficit. Since the government supplies services to people, and it can no longer afford to provide the same level of service, this “tax cut” is actually a tax on workers.

Last year I anticipated the WSJ story in some ways with a column surveying similar findings. I pointed out that joining the Democratic Socialists of America and a labor union were among the remedies for our bad case of plutocratitis.


© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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