Barrett: Wealth in America: Wage gap emphasizes lost economic promise

Sorry folks, but the American Dream is a lie. According to the Federal Reserve Survey, the bottom 90 percent of Americans currently hold 22.8 percent of the household wealth. Meanwhile, the top 0.1 percent holds 22 percent of the wealth.

A gap this big hasn’t occurred since the Great Depression, and the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent has been steadily declining since 1986. In contrast, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 list has jumped from $125 billion to $2.29 trillion since 1984—an increase of 1,832 percent.

In terms of financial asset ownership, the top 10 percent of Americans hold 84.5 percent of the assets, while the next 40 percent hold 14.5 percent and the bottom 50 percent only holds 0.8 percent. If you’re a person of color, this growing wealth gap can be particularly bad news. The median net worth of a white household in this country is almost 13 times that of a black household, jumping from “only” six times as much at the turn of the century.

This all means that the American Dream of working hard and making your million is getting significantly less likely with each passing year, as the wealth in this country continues to be concentrated in the hands of the few.

The notion of the American Dream, however, is still being taken seriously. As 2016 presidential candidate United States Sen. Marco Rubio said in a general speech to the Senate, “We have never been a nation of haves and have nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it, and people who will make it.” But as the numbers above show us, this is clearly not true.

The American Dream is taken seriously because Americans are raised to be hopelessly optimistic about the economy. Fed to us by politicians, the media and corporations, the lie of the American Dream is designed to keep the 90 percent working hard for optimism’s sake. We do not have the time to think critically about what policies are being made that reinforce the wealth gap—such as repealing the estate tax—or how oppressive our current economic situations are.

As we are crushed by student loans, medical bills and rent, not only do we believe these lies, but we propagate them. The Blaze blogger—and member of the 90 percent— Matt Walsh writes, “Take on extra shifts if you can. Work holidays if you have to. Do whatever it takes ... I guarantee you won’t be wearing that White Castle uniform forever … it [is] an uncomfortable rung on a ladder to a better place.”

Despite Walsh’s assertions, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that about 40 percent of fast food employees are over 25 years old. For many, these jobs at which a worker earns an average of $12,000 per year are not a rung on the ladder of the American Dream, but rather a meager pittance on which they scrape by from ages 25–60. And this is just one kind of low-paying job in which millions of the poorest Americans are employed. The lower classes are literally working their lives away, but not so that they can make their millions. It is so that the American wealth can continue to be concentrated into the hands of other people: the already wealthy.

Nothing will change if we all keep working hard just to pass the literal bucks to our wealthiest compatriots. Things will only change in America if the 90 percent realize that we are not “temporarily poor soon-to-haves,” but instead an extensive and modernized serfdom in the 21st century. We need to use our collective voice to make change happen by demanding policies that don’t benefit the wealthy and that enforce livable wages for all.