I’ve been on both sides of our country’s inequality gap. I am blessed to be a millionaire now, but I wasn’t always. It’s hard to make a living in this country without the financial security and safety net increasingly only enjoyed by those of us at the top.
In the early 1980s, when my daughter was born, I was a single mom. I had a modest-paying clerical job that paid the bills and nothing more. I struggled to pay for childcare on my paycheck, and if I’d had more than one child, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But don’t get me wrong – I always had a roof over my head and food on the table, and recognized myself as extraordinarily lucky because I had family wealth behind me if I ever needed it, which most people obviously do not have.
I was lucky. Aided by Reaganomics, I came into a family inheritance that I neither asked for nor earned. I am a product of circumstances working for me and that is the story of inequality in this country, and of many millionaires and people with generational wealth. For me and wealthy people like me, our finances have changed for the better in the last decades. For the bottom half of the country, their finances have become much more tenuous.
If we truly want to bridge the gap, we need to talk about the structural problems that force vast swathes of the American population – particularly people of color – into cycles of poverty in the first place.
While wealthy Americans have weathered the lockdown just fine for these last few months, millions of workers across the country face a current and pending economic crisis thanks to structural barriers to wealth and livable wages. It’s a crisis that predates Covid-19, but has been compounded because of the pandemic.
It’s a crisis of income. The reality of joblessness or a drastic reduction in paid working hours for tens of millions of American workers has set in. At least 45 million people are now unemployed. The Trump administration has gone through three and a half rounds of stimulus, including $500bn directly to US households.
While this stimulus was needed, it highlights the very problem it’s trying to solve. That is, inadequate income for millions of Americans – an acute emergency amidst the pandemic, but one that had been growing well before Covid-19, despite the Trump administration’s protestations about the strength of the job market.
American income inequality has hit its highest point in 50 years. The top 1% already owns more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country, and is now on track to surpass the wealth of the entire middle class, while billionaires accrued over $500bn in the last 12 weeks. For the first time in history, billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than the working class.
Long before the first Covid-19 case was reported in China, the mismatch between wages and cost of living meant the difference between life and death for countless low-income workers in our country and without proper healthcare, the United States still sees people dying because they are poor and unable to afford treatment. Low-income Americans make choices no one should have to: between paying the rent and paying off debt; rationing insulin and paying for groceries; paying for childcare and relying on one parent alone to bring in the money, often working two or more jobs. In this case, what is presented as “consumer choice” is often no choice at all.
Our federal minimum wage is currently set at an abysmally low level of $7.25 an hour, or just over $15,000 a year. This is a starvation wage, forcing millions of people into working two or more jobs just to make ends meet. And it’s only going to get worse. By 2024, $15 an hour will be the bare minimum that US workers need to afford basic costs of living everywhere in the country.
Not only is the current minimum wage inhumane, it’s also a barrier to social progress. If I could barely afford childcare on a modest wage in the 1980s, how can we possibly expect a single mom to provide for multiple children on the exact same wage in 2020? How can we possibly expect women of color to accomplish this when they don’t have access to the kind of intergenerational wealth that I had, that so many white families do?
The majority of minimum wage workers are women and disproportionately people of color, and they have already disproportionately suffered during this crisis. These communities are already working at an extreme disadvantage, yet they don’t have the resources they need to improve their lives, let alone absorb the shock they now face.
If wages consistently leave low-wage workers one emergency away from falling off a fiscal cliff, then it should shock no one that millions are flocking to food pantries, delaying critical medical care, and missing their rent.
So as Congress negotiates the details over the latest round of stimulus and Republicans drag their heels and cry wolf about the deficit while cash-strapped workers suffer, remember that a bill that would lift 40 million Americans out of working poverty, the 2019 Raise the Wage Act, is sitting dormant in the Senate because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring it to a vote.
The crisis in front of us today is to keep millions of Americans from falling off the cliff. But the pandemic will end. And when it does, we need to make sure leaders in Washington recognize that we’d be better off keeping people away from the edge of the cliff in the first place.
Amelie Ratliff is a member of the Patriotic Millionaires. She is a former minister, educator, soccer coach, and consultant, and is now a community volunteer and philanthropist. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and currently lives in Boston