For people who came of age in the Roaring ’20s or the Great Depression that followed, this is déjà vu all over again, a moment in history that must make them feel like they have taken a step back in time.
The disparity in wealth today is as great as it was back then — and it’s growing rapidly.
Just as it was in the 1920s, the richest 20% of Americans own 85% of the wealth. The bottom 40% has a net worth of zero. In most cases, they owe more than they own, which makes them worth less than zero, when it comes to wealth.
Don’t begrudge the rich getting so much richer. It’s House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s good fortune, we assume, that her husband’s smart investments in real estate and football surged in the last year, increasing her net worth by 62% to $35.2 million, showing growing disparity in wealth isn’t just along party lines, at least.
New U.S. Census figures show that for the third year in a row, the poverty rate jumped nationally, reaching 15.3%, with 2.6 million more people joining the 43.6 million already living below the poverty line on a family income of less than $22,113.
In California, it is worse — a lot worse.
The poverty rate jumped a full point to 16%, leaving 6 million people with poverty level incomes and one in five Californians without health insurance, and one in eight without a job.
Burbank’s poverty rate is roughly half the state average, but Glendale and Pasadena are on par with the state. Los Angeles, in a class with Rust Belt cities like Detroit for unemployment, has a poverty rate a third higher, at more than 20%.
You can be as indifferent as you want to the poor — and a lot of people don’t seem to care if they live or die — but you need to worry how they fill up emergency rooms and increase demand on public services of all types, and about the impact of the instability that comes from chronic unemployment and deepening poverty.
Most of all, you need to worry about yourself, if you fit anywhere into the middle class.
The middle of the middle class took a beating again in the last year. The median household income in California fell to $54,459 in the last year — a 4.6% drop, twice the decline that occurred nationally.
Despite the anti-tax sentiment of the moment, local and state governments are slugging the middle class harder with increased rates, fees and fines for just about everything.
What they are doing amounts to a big squeeze, pushing more and more families into poverty or near the poverty line.
The consequences are dire. We see it in all the empty shops in our communities and at the malls. We see it in our shrinking 401(k) accounts. We see it among our friends and neighbors. We feel it in our own fears about what happens if we live so long that we outlive our savings.
America is facing its greatest challenge in nearly a century.
We know our political system is broken from top to bottom. We know most people are apathetic, defeated, ignorant or disengaged. We know even those who are engaged seem blinded by their ideological beliefs, or are unable to see beyond what directly affects them.
We keep hoping that the old saying about the times making the man will come true and a leader will emerge who can bring us together in common purpose to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
It looks like we will be waiting a long time unless we take the initiative ourselves in our lives, our work, our communities and start standing up for what we believe in, at the same time seeking to find common ground with those whose beliefs are different than our own.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.