End of the Dream
Vermont's Congressman on
the collapse of the middle class
by Bernie Sanders
Toward Freedom, Winter 2003
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 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 current disparities in wealth and income
haven't been seen in over a hundred years. Today, the richest
one percent own more wealth than the bottom 95 percent, and the
CEOs of large corporations earn more than 500 times what their
average employees make. The nation's 13,000 wealthiest families,
a hundredth of one percent of the population, have almost as much
income as the poorest 20 million US families.
While the rich get richer and receive
huge tax breaks from the White House, the middle class struggles
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 three 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 that sector.
The hemorrhaging 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 the Internet
and high-speed data networks.
But understanding the pain and anxiety
of the middle class requires going beyond unemployment figures.
In inflation adjusted-dollars, tens of millions of fully employed
workers earn less money today than they received 30 years ago.
In 1973, private-sector workers in the US were paid on average
$9.08 an hour. Today, in real wages, they get $8.33, more than
eight percent lower. Manufacturing jobs that once paid a living
wage are now being done in China, Mexico, and other low-wage countries
as corporations move 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
employers are forcing workers to assume a greater percentage of
their health care costs. It is not uncommon for increases in health
care costs to surpass the wage increases 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.
One manifestation of the collapse of the
middle class is the increased number of hours people must work
to pay the bills. Today, the average US 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 US workers last
year put in 1,978 hours, up from 1,942 in 1990. That's an increase
of almost a week of work. People are putting more hours into work
than at any time since the 1920s. Sixty-five years after the formal
establishment of the 40 hour workweek under the Fair Labor Standards
Act, almost 40 percent of the workforce puts in more than 50 hours
Beyond the hard times for the US middle
class, what about the 33 million people who live in poverty, up
1.3 million in the past two years? What about the 11 million trying
to S, make it on a pathetic minimum wage of $5.15 d an hour? What
about the 42 million who lack ~k, any health insurance? What about
the 3.5 million people who will experience homelessness m this
year, 1.3 million of them children? What r." about the elderly
who can't afford the high cost of the prescription drugs they
need? Or the veterans on waiting lists for health care?
The US needs to radically rethink its
of national priorities. The middle class is the d country's backbone,
and cannot be allowed to disintegrate. We need to revitalize 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 n middle class expand,
Representative Bernie Sanders is the only
Independent in the US House.