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Jan Lee headshot

Top 1% Getting Richer, Faster While Rest of Economy Stagnates

By Jan Lee

The memory seems as clear as if it were last week: Standing in the living room of our Florida home, listening to the new president lay out his economic strategies. The year was 1989, and George H. Bush had just been elected after a long run as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

For the most part, I listened very little to what the Bush administration had to say in those days. I confess I wasn’t a supporter of his outlook or his economic priorities, which didn’t seem to match with the abject poverty I saw around me at the time in then-rural West Florida and the poor governance in environmental safety.

But that afternoon, dogged by the sweltering heat of a humid Florida drought, this particular news bite caught my attention: Americans’ wages were too high. They were unsustainable in the current economy.

My husband and I looked at each other and blinked. We were both balancing our writing and art with transcription work at the time. We had incomes that were considered better than what most of our neighbors were earning, but we certainly weren’t affluent.

Over the next few decades, we noticed the evidence of that thinking. Wage increases seemed harder to depend upon, even as we gained better-paying jobs and moved further into our desired careers. Cost of living seemed out of sync with middle-income salaries. The poorer seemed to be growing in number, not shrinking.

And now economists have documented that phenomena with a series of studies. Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman put together a graph that maps out the history of wage increases in the United States over the past decade. They found that prior to the 1980s, middle income households could expect wage increases commensurate with their professional gains. But from the early 1980s on, that expectation slowed and the disparity between the average worker’s wage gains and that of the very top strata of the upper class continued to grow.

[The] very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades,” David Leonhardt, associate editorial page editor for the New York Times summarized in a recent op-ed.

Only a few decades ago, the middle class and the poor weren’t just receiving healthy raises. Their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly, in percentage terms, than the pay of the rich.”

Other studies have documented this as well. A paper on Aging in America by Larry Polivka of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University (2011) found evidence that salaries had been dropping for years.

Wage increases have lagged behind productivity since 1973,” Polivka writes, who drew attention to research by Steven Greenhouse (2008) that showed that “the average full time worker would be earning $58,000 today if her wages had kept pace with productivity increases over the last 30 years."

Today, that lack of increase is reflected in a wide gulf between the top of society and, well, everyone else. Simply put, that top 1 percent of super-rich earners we’ve heard so much about is getting richer more quickly than the rest of the nation’s earners.

And when it comes to health care options for all but the upper strata, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias explains, that’s a point to keep in mind.

The key driver of Republicans’ Affordable Care Act repeal bill is a desire to repeal a tax on the net investment income of households with an income of more than $250,000,” says Yglesias, who points out that according to the Tax Policy Center, the policy would actually benefit those who earn $700,000 and above, not those who really need affordable health care legislation.

The positive takeaway of these studies is that we are now data-rich: We can see the long-range impact of policies that don’t serve the economic benefit of all income earners and concentrate the income in the hands of one economic sector of the population.

Perhaps it’s now time for researchers to produce the long view of just how economic policies of the past 30-50 years have impacted the working potential of those with health care demands. World Health Organization has produced its own picture of how the lack of access to health care and chronic disease impacts a community's well being in other countries, and oddly, the U.S. is still regarded as an example of countries where health care is reinforced by federal policies. Any new attempt at building a resilient health care program should include a snap shot of just what 37 years of declining income potential has had on the nation's economic engine: its workers

Flickr image: Randen Peterson

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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