Two Americas Ring in the New Year
by Holly Sklar

December 31, 2003

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If poor Americans were a nation, the population would top Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming and the District of Columbia combined.

That's using the Census Bureau's lowball poverty count of 35 million Americans.

If the Forbes 400 richest Americans were a nation, they could celebrate New Year's together in a hotel ballroom. Don't look for "The Simple Life" rich kids Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Their families don't come close to making the list.

Forbes 400 combined wealth of $955 billion is greater than the gross domestic product of Canada, the world's eighth-richest economy.

The wealth threshold for Forbes 400 admission is $600 million. The Hilton family fortune, an estimated $360 million, is small by comparison.

The poverty thresholds for 2002 were $8,628 for a person 65 and older, $9,359 for a person under 65, $12,400 for an adult and child, $14,480 for a couple with one child, and $18,244 for a couple with two children. $18,244 isn't enough to buy the Patek Philippe gold watch and Hermes purse on the Forbes index of luxury goods.

By the official measure, a senior with just $719 a month in Social Security and other income was not poor. In reality America, many people above the poverty line can't afford housing, utilities, food, healthcare, transportation and other basic expenses, including taxes.

$719 won't get you a room for two nights at the Times Square Hilton for New Year's. It will almost buy the box of 25 cigars on the Forbes luxury index.

The two Americas are moving further apart.

Forbes 400 combined wealth rose 10 percent over the past year. Since 1982, when Forbes began the list, Forbes 400 wealth has jumped about 450 percent, adjusting for inflation.

The poverty rate hit its best mark way back in 1973. The 2002 poverty rate of 12.1 percent was 9 percent higher than 1973's. The 2002 child poverty rate was 19 percent higher than its lowest point in 1969.

When the Forbes 400 began in 1982, there were 13 billionaires and 5 of them were oilman H. L. Huntís children. Today there are 262 billionaires and 4 of them are Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's children. Including Sam's widow Helen, the Waltons hold ranks four through eight on the Forbes 400, with $20.5 billion each.

The Waltons' combined $102.5 billion--up from $94 billion in 2002--nearly matches the wealth of the three richest men: Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates ($46 billion) and Paul Allen ($22 billion) and megainvestor Warren Buffett ($36 billion).

The Waltons' $8.5 billion wealth gain in the past year is more than the total budget for Head Start, serving nearly 1 million children.

While the Wal-Mart heirs are among America's richest, Wal-Mart workers are among America's poorest.

Wal-Mart's U.S. workers--most without health benefits--average just $8 an hour, compared with $12 in retail trade generally. Wal-Mart's average wage is lower than the 1968 minimum wage of $8.51, adjusted for inflation. Now the world's largest company, Wal-Mart is rolling back wages in the growing areas it dominates from America to China.

Wal-Mart's CEO pay, by contrast, rose 1,767 percent between 1995 and 2003, according to compensation expert Graef Crystal. CEO Lee Scott's 2003 pay package of $29.8 million amounts to more than $3,400 for every hour of every day of the year.

Thanks in part to poverty-level wages, hunger and homelessness are up sharply, according to the new U.S. Conference of Mayors survey. Emergency food requests jumped an average 17 percent over the past year and emergency shelter requests rose 13 percent in the 25 cities surveyed.

Among those requesting food assistance, 59 percent were families with children, and 39 percent of adults were employed. Among the homeless, 40 percent are families with children, 17 percent are employed and 10 percent are veterans.

Emergency food and shelter providers turn people away because they cannot cope with the rising demand.

Let's make a national New Year's resolution: raise the low wages that contribute to hunger, homelessness and poverty in this richest nation on earth.

Holly Sklar is coauthor of Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us (www.raisethefloor.org). For reprint permission and other correspondence, contact: hsklar@aol.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service © Copyright 2003 Holly Sklar.


Other Articles by Holly Sklar


* Deadly Tunnel Vision in Iraq
Raw Deal for Workers on Minimum Wage Anniversary

* CEO Pay Still Outrageous

* Working-Class Soldiers, Upper-Class Tax Cuts

* Racial Gaps Still Wide This King Holiday








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