Bernie Sanders: Income and wealth inequality is in fact a moral and economic issue

These were the opening remarks by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a hearing this week titled “The Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America.” 

Today, we are going to discuss an issue that is of enormous consequence to our country, but gets far too little discussion. And that is the crisis of income and wealth inequality in America. 

The simple truth is that in America today, the very rich have become much richer while tens of millions of Americans are struggling to put food on the table and live in dignity.

We’re going to learn why it is that the middle class in our country, once the envy of the world, has been in a state of decline for decades, while, at the same time, we have seen a massive transfer of wealth from working families to the top 1 percent. 

We’re going to talk about why it is that, during this horrific pandemic, 63 percent of our workers have been living paycheck to paycheck — worried that if someone in their family gets sick or if the car breaks down, they will be thrown into financial desperation, while 660 billionaires have become $1.3 trillion richer and now pay a lower effective tax rate than truck drivers, schoolteachers or nurses.

We’re going to talk about the obscenity of the 50 richest Americans now owning more wealth than the bottom half of our society — 165 million people — while over 90 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured and cannot afford to go to a doctor when they get sick.

We’ll be asking about how it happens that the top one-tenth of 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and that two individuals own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent, while hunger in America has been at its highest level in many decades and more than half a million people are homeless and veterans are sleeping out on the streets.

Incredibly, if income inequality had remained the same as it was in 1975, the average worker in America would be making $42,000 more today. Instead, as the number of billionaires explodes, the average worker in America is now making $32 dollars a week less than he or she made 48 years ago — after adjusting for inflation.

Today, we're going to ask about what it means morally and economically when one person in this country, the wealthiest person in this country, Jeff Bezos, has become $77 billion richer during this horrific pandemic, while denying hundreds of thousands of workers who work at Amazon paid sick leave and hazard pay.

As you may know, I asked Mr. Bezos to testify at this hearing. He declined my invitation. That is too bad. If he was with us this morning, I would ask him the following question:

Mr. Bezos: You are worth $182 billion. You are the wealthiest person in the world. Why are you doing everything in your power to stop your workers in Bessemer, Alabama, from joining a union so that they can negotiate for better wages, better benefits and better working conditions?

While Mr. Bezos could not be with us to answer those questions, we are going to hear from Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker in Bessemer, Alabama, who will tell us what it’s like to work for one of the most profitable corporations in America and why she and her co-workers are trying to form a union.

But let’s be clear. Amazon and Jeff Bezos are not alone.

The American people are increasingly disgusted with the corporate greed they experience every single day. They are sick and tired of corporate CEOs who now make 320 times more than their average employees, while they give themselves huge bonuses and cut back on the health care benefits of their employees.

They want corporations to invest in their workers for decent wages, benefits and working conditions and not just higher dividends, stock buybacks and outrageous compensation packages to their executives.

And that is why I am introducing legislation today to impose an income inequality tax on corporations that pay their CEOs over 50 times more than their average workers. 

It has always been true, of course, that CEOs make more than their workers. But what has been going on in recent years is totally absurd. In 1965, CEOs of large corporations made just 20 times as much as their average workers. Today, CEOs now make over 300 times and, in some cases, over a thousand times more than their average workers. That has got to change.

When we talk about the need to protect the working class of this country and to address the crisis of income and wealth inequality, there is an enormous amount of work that Congress must do:

  • We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of at least $15 an hour. A job should lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it.
  • We need to make it easier, not harder, for workers to join unions. The massive increase in wealth and income inequality can be directly linked to the decline in union membership in America.
  • We need to create millions of good-paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure — our roads, bridges, wastewater plants, sewers, culverts, dams, schools and affordable housing.
  • We need to fundamentally transform our energy system away from fossil fuels toward energy efficiency and renewable energy, which will also create millions of good-paying jobs.
  • We need to do what every major country on earth does and guarantee health care to all people as a human right. It is absurd that we pay twice as much per capita for health care as do the people of virtually every other nation, while tens of millions of Americans are uninsured or under-insured.
  • We need to make certain that all of our young people, regardless of income, have the right to get a higher education. And that means making public colleges and universities tuition-free and substantially reducing student debt for working families.
  • And yes. We need to make the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America begin to pay their fair share of taxes. In my view, it is unacceptable that some of the largest corporations in America have paid nothing in federal income taxes after making billions of dollars in profits. It is unacceptable that billionaires are now paying a lower effective federal income tax rate than the bottom 90 percent.

Now, I know my Republican colleagues have a different view. At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, they believe that we should provide even more tax breaks to the richest people in America. In fact, just last week, several Republicans in the Senate, including Majority Leader McConnell, introduced a bill to repeal the estate tax — legislation that would provide a $1.7 trillion tax break to the billionaire class, while doing nothing to help working families or family farms.

Let’s be clear: Repealing the estate tax would only benefit the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans who inherit over $11.7 million, and 99.9 percent of the American people would not receive a penny if this legislation became law. Under this bill, the richest family in America, the Walton family, would receive a tax break of up to $87 billion. The family of Jeff Bezos would receive a tax break of up to $70 billion if the estate tax was repealed.

That may make sense to my Republican colleagues. But it does not make sense to me.

Here is the bottom line: The issue of income and wealth inequality is in fact a moral and economic issue. It is an issue that we must confront here and across the world.

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