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 a week.

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, not collapse.


Representative Bernie Sanders is the only Independent in the US House.

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