What does the pandemic have in common with income inequality? Both target the same low-income people, and enrich the already-wealthy.
According to Inequality.org, U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth jump over $930 billion since mid-March alone.
If this interminable election season finally ends, and if–as polls suggest is possible (I’m too superstitious to say “likely”)–Democrats take the White House and Senate, that first hundred days is going to be busy. At a minimum, the latest “gift” to the billionaire class, Trump and McConnell’s unconscionable tax act, needs to be reversed. But that’s the minimum.
In this essay, Hanauer and Rolf begin by setting out the extent to which income inequality has hampered America’s ability to deal with the pandemic.
Like many of the virus’s hardest hit victims, the United States went into the COVID-19 pandemic wracked by preexisting conditions. A fraying public health infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies, an employer-based health insurance system perversely unsuited to the moment—these and other afflictions are surely contributing to the death toll. But in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic—and its cruelly uneven impact—the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality.
How big is this elephant? A staggering $50 trillion. That is how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.
Hanauer and Rolf go on to explain that the 50 trillion dollar number isn’t some
“back-of-the-napkin approximation.” A working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, demonstrated that–had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) simply held steady–the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. Since 1945, that number is $50 trillion.
That’s $50 trillion that would have gone into the paychecks of working Americans had inequality held constant—$50 trillion that would have built a far larger and more prosperous economy—$50 trillion that would have enabled the vast majority of Americans to enter this pandemic far more healthy, resilient, and financially secure.
Nearly all of the economic growth of the past 45 years was captured by those at the very top of the income distribution. And as Hanauer has repeatedly argued, that extreme disproportion has left millions of Americans with very little disposable income, a situation that hobbles economic growth overall.
It also made us much more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Even inequality is meted out unequally. Low-wage workers and their families, disproportionately people of color, suffer from far higher rates of asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other COVID-19 comorbidities; yet they are also far less likely to have health insurance, and far more likely to work in “essential” industries with the highest rates of coronavirus exposure and transmission…. Imagine how much safer, healthier, and empowered all American workers might be if that $50 trillion had been paid out in wages instead of being funneled into corporate profits and the offshore accounts of the super-rich. Imagine how much richer and more resilient the American people would be. Imagine how many more lives would have been saved had our people been more resilient.
The article goes through the numbers, including numbers that answer the question “What if American prosperity had continued to be broadly shared?—how much more would a typical worker be earning today? They set out their conclusions in graphs embedded in the article. On average, they concluded that extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year.
Remember, these calculations would result from keeping former income inequalities static–not engaging in redistribution down, but simply refraining from engaging in redistribution up.
The top 1 percent’s share of total taxable income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1975, to 22 percent in 2018, while the bottom 90 percent have seen their income share fall, from 67 percent to 50 percent. This represents a direct transfer of income—and over time, wealth—from the vast majority of working Americans to a handful at the very top.
This situation is bad for the economy, bad for our health and very bad for our democracy. It needs to be reversed.