(Editor's note: Northern Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who represents the 11th congressional District, issued a statement on income equality in the United States in anticipation of President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday night.)
“Since the 1970s, American workers have seen their wages fall or stagnate. The wealthiest Americans’ incomes have increased fourfold. Even after 40 years of economic growth, today’s generation takes home less than our grandparents and high-school graduates make 40 percent less than their predecessors did four decades ago.
“This problem ought to elicit bipartisan concern, yet many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have shown little interest in the consequences of our country becoming so sharply divided by wealth. For many of my Republican colleagues, even talking about wealth and income inequality is uncomfortable. It’s time to realize all too many Americans – hardworking Americans – are falling behind.
“From 1979–2007, wages for the top 1 percent of wage earners grew 156 percent, while the bottom 90 percent saw only a 17 percent increase. Since 1983, nearly 75 percent of the growth in wealth has been captured by the top 5 percent, while the bottom 60 percent actually suffered a decline. By 2010, nearly all middle and low-income families made the same hourly wage that they did in 2000, despite having raised productivity by 22 percent. Worse, median family income was 6 percent lower.
“But this lost decade only caps a trend of declining wage growth that began in 1979.
“In what may be the most telling portrait of how middle and low-income Americans are being shut out of the new economy, Bloomberg Business recently reported that 95 percent of wealth generated in the post-financial-crash era went to the richest 1 percent. In real terms, 9 out of 10 people control less wealth than they did before the financial crash. In 2012, the top 10 percent of earners took home more than half of the U.S.’s total income in 2012. This is the highest level ever recorded. Income and wealth haven’t been this concentrated since before the Great Depression, and it’s likely that soon we will eclipse even the Gilded Age.
“A recent Gallup poll shows that concerns about inequality have moved beyond academia and into public consciousness. According to Gallup, 2 out of 3 Americans are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution in the U.S. – including 54 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents. This same poll found that many Americans now worry about their ability to find future opportunities, and only 54 percent believe that one can get ahead by working hard. What does this say about the American Dream?
“Louis Brandeis warned, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Letting a generation of Americans remain underemployed, under-paid, and despairing of a bleak future creates a dangerous cycle of economic and social destruction.
“Nations whose citizens believe that the game is rigged against them are not beacons of democracy. Civic culture corrodes and space opens for divisive and extreme politics. Pope Francis recently lamented that the world’s inequality is quietly undermining our social and political institutions.
“Tonight, the President, will highlight how our nation’s wealth and income gaps have become too large to continue to ignore. Congress cannot continue to stand idly.
“I urge my colleagues to consider the many bipartisan proposals that would jumpstart job growth for ALL Americans. We need to be investing in this country’s crumbling infrastructure. My own Put America Back to Work Act – which would reauthorize the Build America Bonds program and give our local governments another tool to jumpstart infrastructure projects – is one of many measures that would create immediate work for many of the underemployed in this country.
“Generations of Americans, starting with our Founders, made their way to America’s shores attracted by the promise of opportunity and the belief that through hard work they could build a better life for themselves and their families.
“Unfortunately, the American Dream is becoming further out of reach for more Americans, and Congress is not helping matters. I urge my colleagues to join me in preserving opportunity for ALL Americans and to preventing our nation from becoming one of haves and have-nots.”