The United States has always been proud of the fact that it’s the last bastion of democracy and free markets, a place where anyone can make it if they’re willing to work hard and believe in the American Dream. The facts are far removed from this myth, though. This nation is divided not by race or religion, but by a wealth gap that’s making a mockery of democracy.
And if any nation should be able to support a fair living standard for its citizens, the U.S. is it. After all, this is a country whose households held $113 trillion in assets last year, which amounts to more than $343,000 per person. According to the Brookings Institute, if the wealth were to be divided evenly, each household of three people would have over a million dollars’ worth of assets.
But of course, the wealth isn’t divided evenly, since the value isn’t created evenly – not even close. By enriching the few at the expense of the many, and by making it nearly impossible for the middle class to retire comfortably at any age, America has managed to become the worst nation to be a citizen of when it comes to starting at the bottom. You have a 14% chance of escaping poverty – only 1 out of 7 ever do.
Not that the U.S. is the only culprit here; the wealth inequality problem is absolutely a global one. Worldwide, the share of income going to the middle class (the middle 60% of workers) has declined, while the share earned by the top 20% of earners has increased over the past 13 years.
And when we look at the richest of the rich, the inequality is even more profound: the global share of income going to the top 1% wealthiest households has nearly tripled in the last four decades, from 3% in the late 1970s to around 8% today. If you’re expecting America to do better than this, you’re sadly mistaken:
Courtesy: Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam, Brookings Institute</p
The entirety of the American middle class holds less wealth than the nation’s richest 1%! It wasn’t always like this, but the Great Recession put the final nail in the coffin for anyone hoping to escape the debt cycle and raise their standard of living.
The bullshit recovery from the 2008-2009 financial crisis has really only benefited the ultra-wealthy while the middle class has gotten the short end of the stick. Student loan debt (which has especially crippled millennials) and credit card debt, a decline in homeownership due to the latest housing bubble, and a lack of stock market participation (few non-wealthy people own stocks) have made the recovery inaccessible to most Americans. They just don’t have assets, so the recovery in equity prices hasn’t tickled their wallets.
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Millennials, who grew up amid the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, have been hit the hardest by the growing wealth disparity in America. Pulled underwater by debt and stuck in a lifelong renting cycle because they can’t afford to buy a home, the 35-and-under demographic is suffering from unprecedented generational wealth inequality:
Courtesy: Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam, Brookings Institute
America cannot truly claim to be free when these disparities persist. Some proposed solutions include a “universal basic income,” taxing the wealthy (e.g., Elizabeth Warren’s 2% tax on household net worth above $50 million and 3% tax on household net worth above $1 billion), forgiveness of student loan debts, and making college free.
Instead of counting on the government to close the wealth gap, your best bet is to focus on your own family’s wealth and live a debt-free, education-focused life.
The battle against wealth inequality starts at home – even if the American Dream can’t be everybody’s, at least it can be yours.
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This work is based on SEC filings, current events, interviews, corporate press releases and what we’ve learned as financial journalists. It may contain errors and you shouldn’t make any investment decision based solely on what you read here. It’s your money and your responsibility. The information herein is not intended to be personal legal or investment advice and may not be appropriate or applicable for all readers. If personal advice is needed, the services of a qualified legal, investment or tax professional should be sought.
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