The immediate crisis may have passed, but most Americans still haven’t recovered from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Wealthy Americans, on the other hand, are doing better than ever. In the three years after the recession hit, economist Emmanuel Saez has calculated, the top 1 percent captured an incredible 91 percent of the nation’s income growth.
This latest surge in inequality has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, the Occupy movement’s “We Are the 99 Percent” rallying cry thrust our nation’s great divide onto the center stage of American politics. In 2014, an international best seller from a previously unknown French economist, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, sounded the alarm about the global plutocracy that will emerge if current trends continue. In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists connected the dots between police crackdowns and the local revenue shortfalls made inevitable by tax cuts for America’s wealthiest.
The climate-justice movement, meanwhile, has highlighted the fact that our dream of unfettered economic growth imperils the very future of humankind on this planet, and that global climate change is hitting the poor and people of color hardest. To save our earth in its current form, we’ll need to start thinking much more seriously about sustainability and equitable distribution.
All of these currents have contributed to inequality’s unprecedented visibility in the 2016 presidential race. Senator Bernie Sanders has made America’s toxic concentration of wealth the centerpiece of his campaign. Hillary Clinton has also acknowledged that inequality is a serious problem. And a solid majority of Americans agree: According to polls, 75 percent support raising the minimum wage, and 68 percent support increasing taxes on people earning more than $1 million. Even 76 percent of our billionaires, a Forbes survey found, regard income inequality as a “serious societal problem.”
Unfortunately, all this rising concern has not yet translated into significant results. To be sure, a number of states and localities have raised the minimum wage. The Obama administration has also granted home-care workers the right to wage protections and expanded the number of workers receiving paid sick leave and overtime pay. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms have taken some modest steps to rein in CEO pay and protect ordinary Americans from reckless Wall Street greed. And there is increasing bipartisan support for addressing the policies of mass incarceration that have widened the racial divide. But the overall trend toward inequality is actually accelerating.
In fact, inequality has kicked into hyperdrive. America’s 400 richest individuals, according to the new “Billionaire Bonanza” report from the Institute for Policy Studies, now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the US population. Our nation’s 20 richest individuals—a group small enough to fit in a single Gulfstream jet—have more wealth than the bottom half of the entire US population.