I listened intently to President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Frankly, I had a hard time understanding what country he was talking about, what reality he was talking about. Certainly, if the “state of the union” refers to what is happening to the shrinking middle class of this country, and how we as a people are doing, the president had almost nothing to say that rang true. In fact, the speech just reminds us once again how far removed from the reality of ordinary life this president is, and how little he and his administration know about what is going on with the vast majority of Americans.
The president said that “in the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth.” I wish that was true. Unfortunately, Since President Bush has been in office it is important to understand that:
-Nearly five million Americans have slipped out of the middle class and into poverty. Amazingly, the poverty rate is higher today than it was during the last recession in 2001.
-Median household income for working-age Americans has declined by almost $2,500; and overall median household income has gone down by nearly $1,000.
-8.6 million Americans have lost their health insurance.
-Over three million manufacturing jobs have been lost, including more than 10,000 in my State of Vermont.
-Three million workers have lost their pensions, and about half of American workers in the private sector have no pension coverage whatsoever.
-The annual trade deficit has more than doubled, and the national debt has gone up by $3 trillion.
-Health care premiums have increased 78 percent; the prices of gas and heating oil have more than doubled; and college education costs have increased by over 60 percent.
In addition, to those statistics, let me just mention a few more:
-Last November, the personal savings rate was below zero, something that up until 2005 hasn’t happened since the Great Depression.
-According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35.5 million Americans struggled to put food on the table last year and the number of the hungriest Americans keeps going up.
-The average college student has racked up nearly $20,000 in debt upon graduation and some 400,000 qualified high school students don’t go to college in the first place because they can’t afford it.
-Home foreclosures are the highest on record turning the American dream of homeownership into an American nightmare for millions of Americans.
-The number of working families paying more than half of their incomes on housing has increased by 72 percent over the past decade.
-The United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty, the highest infant mortality rate, the highest overall poverty rate, the largest gap between the rich and the poor, the largest incarceration rate, and is the only country not to have a national health care program of any major developed country on earth.
-And, the number of college graduates earning poverty level wages has more than doubled over the past 15 years.
In other words, not only is the middle class being squeezed by skyrocketing prices; the middle class is actually shrinking and poverty is increasing.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest people in our society have not had it so good since the 1920s.
Income inequality is on the rise. According to the latest figures from the IRS, the top 1 percent earned more income in 2005 than the bottom 50 percent, and the national share of income going to the wealthiest Americans is higher than at any time since 1929.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the unequal distribution of wealth.
According to Forbes magazine, the collective net worth of the wealthiest 400 Americans increased by $290 billion last year to $1.54 trillion. In addition, the top one percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
As Robert Frank of The Wall Street Journal has pointed out in his book Richistan, the super wealthy, those worth between $100 million to $1 billion, spent an average of $182,000 on wrist watches; $311,000 on automobiles; $397,000 on jewelry; and $169,000 on spa services last year alone.
The middle class is shrinking, poverty is increasing, and the wealthiest Americans have not had it so good since the 1920s.
That is the real state of our economy.
Bernie Sanders is the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont.