Wealth inequality in the United States has entered larger than ever disproportions. Wages are stagnating while the cost of living steadily climbs and many Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Federal programs, like the minimum wage, are put into place to help combat poverty and guarantee individuals’ livable wages but it is truly not enough for a large percentage of the workforce. And low wage workers make up a surprisingly substantial amount of the workforce in relation to the ultra-wealthy, who control most of the nation’s equity.
In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that an increase in minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 would help alleviate some of the high costs of living for about seventeen million people. Additionally, this would bring a little over one and a half million people above the poverty line. Proponents against raising minimum wage will argue that the financial burden to keep employees out of poverty will lay solely on business owners. The business owners in turn will be penalized when they must raise their prices to endure higher employee costs. When businesses need to raise prices due to higher operating costs the cost of living will go up as well, negating any real increase in minimum wage.
The issue is not necessarily the small amount of minimum wage earners but the large number of workers earning “low wages”. In 2001 almost one third of all workers were low wage workers and in 2019 forty-four percent of the workforce fell into the same category. For context, a low wage worker is classified as someone who earns a median of $10.22 per hour or about $18,000 per year. That represents about fifty-three million working Americans. Almost half of the workforce makes just enough to survive. Now, in 2019 there are approximately thirty-four million Americans living in poverty and about eighteen and a half million live in deep poverty. Today, too many workers are living in “survivable” wage situations. “Survivable” is not tolerable any longer, these workers deserve to take part in the capital that they create. Instead they are fed small portions of a pie controlled by the wealthiest members of society.
By no means am I siding with an ideology that calls for the elimination of work. Nor am I arguing that minimum wage should be raised to a point that causes extreme detriment to business, especially small business. I am only pointing out the facts, there is a glaring gap in the wages of Americans. How can 44% of Americans make a median wage of roughly $10 per hour while the richest 1% controls almost half of all the equity in private and public companies? In other words, they own assets that combined are almost equal to all the wealth owned by the 50-90th percentile of Americans.
The American dream today is becoming a fallacy. The ideology that anyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is laughable. It is also incredibly ignorant to believe that within the confines of this massive country socio-economic conditions are all the same. Not every person has the same opportunity, and not every person has access to the same education. Add the mounting product of a vicious debt machine combined with the increased cost of living and it is easy to understand why the gap between the uber wealthy and middle class is so varying. It is easy to use common rhetoric to demean workers deemed less important by an abusive consumerist culture. What is not easy is to understand there is a problem and work towards a solution together.
Written By: Patrick O’Connor