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Gap widens between U.S. rich, poor as top 1 percent controls 25 percent of wealth

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 27 2011 9:36 a.m. MDT

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In New York's 16th congressional district, 51-year-old Feliz Santiago is doing his best to climb his way to the middle class. On his side of the Harlem River, though, the median income is barely above the federal poverty level, the crime rates are high and well-paid jobs are scarce. With rent and food prices rising, the handyman and father remarks ruefully, "If you live in this neighborhood, you are poor. If you try to be middle class, you just can't do it."

Just a 10-minute subway ride away, though, in New York's 14th congressional district, life plays out differently. Here, in the Upper East Side, home to New York's richest, residents remark the recession has inspired them to start watching their spending. But still, The Guardian reports, they raise their families in gigantic apartments and send their children to the best private schools. Townhouses go for $26 million and two-bedroom apartments ring in at $1.9 million.

The two neighborhoods illustrate the growing divide between the rich and the poor in America. The country's 400 wealthiest families enjoy a higher net worth than the bottom 60 percent of all U.S. households, economists at Politifact reported. At the same time, more Americans are living in poverty than ever before recorded, according to the most recent census statistics.

The issue has gotten a lot of press time of late. In a bid for "fairness" Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois introduced a bill earlier this year that would increase marginal tax rates for those making more than $1 million to 45 percent. Warren Buffet, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, recently penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times where he implored congress to "stop coddling the super-rich," and increase the tax burden for the country's billionaires. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, in the meantime, has been lobbying to increase the taxation of the poor, many of whom she says don't pay income taxes.

The average American, according to a recent Harvard Business School/Duke University survey, believes wealth should be divided thus: the top 20 percent should control 32 percent of the wealth, the bottom 20 percent should control 10 percent and the rest should be spread out among the middle class. In reality, though, the top 20 percent of Americans control 84 percent of the wealth while the bottom quintile controls just 0.1 percent. The net worth of the bottom 40 percent combined accounts for just 0.3 percent of the nation's wealth.

The gap is widening. Only 25 years ago, the top 1 percent of the nation controlled 12 percent of the nation's wealth. Today, they control close to 25, Vanity Fair recently reported. According to the CIA's World Factbook, only 38 of 136 countries have a less equitable distribution of wealth than America.

In a recent article, CBS News suggested the increasing divide between America's rich and poor can be attributed in part to the decisions of elected officials, many of whom are among the nation's wealthiest. Quoting Vanderbilt political scientists Larry Bartells, they point out senators tend to favor the wishes of the upper third of income distribution. They are less responsive to the middle third and "not at all responsive to the preferences of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution."

"A bias toward the desires of the wealthiest Americans has resulted in policies that critics say exacerbate the wealth and income divide — among them reduced capital gains tax rates, deregulation of the financial system and a reduction of tax rates on high earners," CBS's Brian Montopoli wrote. "They say many politicians largely serve the wealthy and leave those on the bottom behind, pointing out that the minimum wage is currently lower than it was 30 years ago after accounting for inflation."

While Schakowsky argues, "We need tax fairness in this country, and the Republicans right now are on a crusade against low-income people," conservatives believe the focus should not be on inequality. Kevin A. Hassett, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told CBS news it is "immoral" and "unethical" for Democrats to push a "spread the wealth philosophy."

"When you put a high top rate in it will cause economic damage, and that income damage will tend to impact people on the bottom end of the income distribution because they're the most vulnerable," he said. In pushing for an increase in taxes on high earners, he said, Democrats are making a "calculated appeal to the median voter's greed" — and are putting politics "ahead of social justice."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com Twitter: elizMstuart

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