Since the financial crisis began in 2008, millions of Americans across the country have seen their annual earnings stagnate. However, while the rest of us have been struggling even more to make ends meet, the number of billionaires has more than doubled.
According to a new Oxfam report on inequality, there were 793 billionaires worldwide in March 2009. By March 2014, that number ballooned to 1,645 billionaires.
The startling statistics don’t end there. Sarah Dransfield, senior press officer for Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, notes that “the richest 85 people — who Oxfam revealed in January have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population — saw their collective wealth increase by $668 million every day over the last year. That’s almost half a million dollars every minute.”
And, when taken as a whole, over the past four years alone the combined wealth of billionaires has jumped to $5.4 trillion — an eye-popping increase of 124 percent.
Conservatives often claim that when businesses do well, they then use those extra profits to create jobs and pay their workers more. If that were true, however, the income gap would be shrinking — not growing in leaps and bounds. So while candidates on the campaign trail can cling to the idea of so-called trickle-down economics as justification for arguing against an increase in the minimum wage all they like, the numbers simply don’t support that.
Fun fact: Those government “entitlement programs” the GOP likes to rail against in its efforts to paint recipients as lazy? According to a February report issued by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, 900,000 Americans would no longer live in poverty if the nation enacted a minimum wage hike.
Take Wal-Mart workers, for instance. An April report from Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of more than 425 national and state-level organizations, found that the retail giant’s employees relied on an estimated $6.2 billion in government aid in 2013. Add in the $7 billion in public assistance that goes to fast-food workers and their families each year, according to a University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education study, and we’re looking at more than $13 billion.
So, essentially, while companies are pocketing extra money hand over fist and taking advantage of tax loopholes that allow them to fill their coffers even more, those of us who are truly struggling are subsidizing their low wages. That slightly cheaper burger or case of soda hardly seems like such a deal in light of all that, does it?
“Inequality is one of the defining problems of our age,” states Oxfam Chief Executive Mark Goldring. “In a world where hundreds of millions of people are living without access to clean drinking water and without enough food to feed their families, a small elite have more money than they could spend in several lifetimes.”
“The consequences of extreme inequality are harmful to everyone — it robs millions of people of better life chances and fuels crime, corruption and even violent conflict. Put simply, it is holding back efforts to end poverty.”
“Governments around the world have been guilty of a naive faith that wealth going to those at the top will automatically benefit everyone. That’s not true — it is their responsibility to ensure the poorest are not left behind.”
So what should governments do to remedy this situation? The charity called on them to implement a seven-point plan: clamp down on tax dodging; invest in free, universal healthcare and education; introduce equal pay legislation; introduce minimum wages and move toward a living wage for all workers; provide adequate safety nets for the poor, including a minimum income guarantee; shift the burden of taxation from labor and consumption toward capital and wealth; and agree on a global goal to tackle inequality.
The Oxfam report has been endorsed by a number of leaders and economists from around the world, including Columbia University Professor Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, chair of the Africa Progress Panel and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his endorsement, Bank of England Chief Economist Andrew Haldane said, “In highlighting the problem of inequality Oxfam not only speaks to the interests of the poorest people but also the wider collective interest: there is rising evidence that extreme inequality harms, durably and significantly, the stability of the financial system and growth in the economy. It slows development of the human, social and physical capital necessary for raising living standards and improving well-being. That penny is starting to drop among policymakers and politicians.”
It’s hard to argue with the sense — and cents — of that, isn’t it?
Pekin Daily Times city editor Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AmyGehrt.