Today in America, the great middle class of our country, the middle class that has been the envy of the entire world, is collapsing, poverty is increasing, while the wealthiest people in this country have never had it so good.
As a result of the greed, the recklessness, and the illegal behavior of the crooks on Wall Street who caused this recession, more than 16 percent of our people are unemployed: twenty-five million Americans. That percentage is even higher for minorities, for young people, for blue collar workers. Today, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. From Vermont to Wisconsin to California, there are workers who do have jobs but who are earning substantially less than they earned twenty years ago. Can you appreciate what it’s like for somebody to be struggling year after year after year and now at the age of fifty or sixty to be earning substantially less than they were twenty years ago? Do you know why the American people are angry? That’s why they’re angry.
More than forty-six million Americans are living below the poverty line. That is the largest number on record. The rich get richer, and we have the largest number of people living in poverty in our history. And the United States has the dubious distinction of having by far the highest rate of child poverty: almost 22 percent of our children are living in poverty. Compare this to Denmark, which has less than 4 percent, and to France and Germany, which have less than 10 percent. This is the future of our country: 22 percent of our kids not getting the education, not getting the nutrition, not getting the support they need to do well in life and be productive members of our society. That is a national shame that we must never accept.
Poverty is not just discomfort; poverty is not just a lack of material goods. Poverty is a death sentence. If you are in the bottom 20 percent of income earners, you will die six and a half years earlier than if you are in the top 20 percent. We have got to eliminate this form of capital punishment.
Let us not forget for a moment that the United States is the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all of its people as a right. Today, fifty million Americans have no health insurance and millions more are underinsured, with high deductibles and high premiums. This year, 45,000 people are going to die because they don’t have health insurance and they can’t get to a doctor in time, according to a Harvard study.
In the midst of all that pain and misery, the wealthiest people and the largest corporations in America are doing phenomenally well. Today in America, we have the dubious distinction of having by far the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any advanced country on Earth. That has got to end.
The top 1 percent earns more income than the bottom 50 percent, and the wealthiest 400 people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of American society: 150 million Americans.
Does that sound like justice to you?
The wealthy are paying a smaller share of their income in taxes than at any point since the Great Depression. That’s why Warren Buffett makes the point that his real-effective tax rate is lower than the office workers who work for him. Hedge fund managers who made a billion dollars last year pay a lower effective tax rate than many teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters. And corporations today are making record-breaking profits while their real-effective tax rates are at a sixty-year low.
That is not justice. We need a tax system that is fair, that is progressive, and that tells the wealthy to start paying their fair share of taxes.
The same goes for the largest corporations and Wall Street firms in America. This has everything in the world to do not just with decency and justice but with the deficit reduction situation we’re facing right now, because the choices we’re going to have to make are whether we cut programs for children, the elderly, health care, and the environment, or whether we ask those who are getting away with murder to pay their fair share.
We give tax breaks to companies that are outsourcing American jobs to the tune of $500 billion during a ten-year period. Maybe it’s time to end that absurdity.
You want to do deficit reduction? What about telling corporations and the wealthy, who are stashing huge amounts of money in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, costing us $100 billion a year, maybe we’re going to end those absurd tax loopholes?
And when we talk about deficit reduction, what about ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing the troops home?
My point is simple. The deficit situation today that was caused by the wars and tax breaks for the rich and the Wall Street bailout and the recession is a serious problem. I do not want to leave a huge debt and deficit to my children and my grandchildren. But we can deal with deficit reduction in a way that is fair and responsible by getting at the root problem and asking those that have caused the problem to pay for it rather than the children and the elderly.
You know why Wall Street and the anti-government crowd hate Social Security? They hate Social Security because it has succeeded in doing exactly what it was supposed to have done. It is a huge success story. Before Social Security, 50 percent of the seniors in this country lived in poverty. Today, it is only 10 percent.
I know that in my state, your state, all over this country, these are incredibly difficult times. I see people in Vermont all the time and the stories they are telling are heartbreaking. The dreams they have for their kids are disappearing right before their eyes. Old people don’t know how they are going to live out their lives. It breaks my heart, and it breaks your heart.
The struggle we are engaged in right now is of pivotal importance for this country. Whether we win or lose will determine the future of America. That struggle is not just for our lives, but more importantly it is for our children and our grandchildren.
Despair is not an option. I know you get angry, I know you get frustrated, I know you get disgusted. But we don’t have the right not to be involved.
Our job is to simply bring to fruition what the overwhelming majority of the American people want. They want an economy that works for the middle class and working families and not just for the rich. They want everybody in this country to have health care as a right. They want to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They want to move away from these gross inequalities in income and wealth.
We have the people behind us. They have the money. And at the end of the day, the people will be stronger than the money.
Senator Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont. This article was adapted from a speech he gave at Fighting Bob Fest in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 17.