Economic Inequality is Increasing in the U.S.
The U.S. is the richest country on earth, with 41.6% of the world’s total global personal wealth (China is in second place with 10.5%), yet more than one fifth of the children in the U.S. live in households with incomes below the poverty line.
Economic inequality, the gap between the rich and everyone else, has been increasing over the last three decades in the U.S. And nearly all of the economic gains over the past few years have gone to those at the top.
Between 1979 and 2007, paycheck income of the top 1 percent of U.S. earners exploded by over 256 percent, while the bottom 90% of earners have seen little change in their average income. If you would like to learn more about escalating inequality, watch this 24 minute video What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.
It is important to recognize that as economic inequality grows larger in a society, health and social problems such as drug and alcohol addiction, obesity, life expectancy and social mobility get worse. To better understand the negative impacts of economic inequality watch this 16 minute video How Economic Inequality Harms Societies.
The Influence of Big Money On Our Federal Government
With their enormous monetary contributions to national election campaigns, a fairly small number of very wealthy individuals are able to exert significant influence on our federal government. Of the top ten largest contributors to the 2016 election, six gave huge amounts to Democratic and Liberal causes (between $23 and $92 million), and four gave similarly huge contributions to Republican and Conservative causes. Our country was founded to have government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, and that is not happening at this point in our history. “We the people” have little voice in how we are governed. Large donations from corporations, PACS and billionaires now have a much stronger voice in our federal government and many of our state governments. Decisions are made and laws are passed that are driven by their needs, not the needs of the rest of us.
What was designed to be a government of checks and balances among its three branches has been corrupted by these moneyed interests, and as a result, our people are suffering the consequences.
Our current president was elected with fewer popular votes than his main opponent in a contest sullied by huge amounts of money, negative advertising, Russian hacking and ill-timed FBI comments. His main opponent in the election spent over $1 billion in a losing effort, much of it on negative advertising. In some cases corporations and other donors gave millions of dollars to both campaigns, with the hope of buying influence.
In President Trump’s efforts to “drain the swamp” he has put in place cabinet officials that are wealthy and appear not to be focused on the needs of average Americans. He himself faces conflicts of interest between his own businesses and the job of being president.
Our legislators work in a system that requires them to spend about half their time raising money. In order to raise the enormous sums of money needed to run for office and stay in office, legislators must turn to corporations, PACS, special interest groups, billionaires, and their own political party joint fundraising committees. The current system practically requires it. Legislators cannot help but be influenced by the needs of the groups that fund them. They are dependent on this money for their political survival.
In working to support the needs of their respective groups of big money contributors, congress has become increasingly divided and unable to govern effectively. The Speaker of the House Paul Ryan admits that his party has spent the last ten years just saying no to whatever was suggested by the democratic President or other legislators. “Being against things was easy to do. You just had to be against it.” Now the Democrats seem to be doing the same thing, just saying no. Legislators on both sides appear unable to explore good ideas, work out compromises and pass good legislation. “We have to do some soul-searching internally to determine whether or not we are even capable of functioning as a governing body,” said Representative Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota.
And finally, the branch of government that we turn to for absolute objectivity, the Judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court, has itself made decisions that appear to be driven by moneyed interests. In 1976, in Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that spending money to influence elections is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. In effect saying that money is speech. In 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that there would be no limit on the amount that corporations could spend on political advertising.
If you would like to learn a bit more about the current situation, read this excellent article Liz Kennedy: Corporate Capture Threatens Democratic Government.
It is very clear that big moneyed interests have an enormous influence on our government. Please read the next section How Did this Happen? to better understand why we are in this situation.