Why are Occupy Wall Street protesters out there….they don’t even know what they are protesting about? That is what we are hearing over and over from Fox News and other conservative pundits on an hourly basis.
I can’t speak for them all but here are a few clues: How about protesting to object corporate control of government policies, which has led to unfair tax loopholes, job outsourcing, cuts to public programs and gross overcompensation of executive employees, a widening wealth disparity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country.
So what is the disparity? How is wealth distributed in the United States? When you hear your conservative, Tea Party relatives or friends talking down the OWS movement, here are a few fun facts you can mention. These were compiled by staff writer of Life’s Little Mysteries, Natalie Wolchover.
FACT #1: The wealthiest 1 percent of households own 34.6 percent of all privately held wealth, and 42.7 percent of all financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home).
According to the NYU economist Edward Wolff a 2010 report, the bottom 80 percent of the population holds just 15 percent of the total wealth and only 7 percent of the total financial wealth (as a large portion of their wealth is tied up in their homes). The bottom 40 percent of Americans — that’s 120 million people — hold just 0.3 percent of the wealth.
FACT #2: The United States has more income and wealth inequality than most countries that have been studied, including India and China — countries that are traditionally viewed as having unequal distributions of wealth.
The degree of income inequality in each country is assigned a “Gini coefficient” — a number that ranges from zero (if everyone in the country has the same income) to 1 (if one person in the country has all the income). According to data gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency for 2010, the United States has a Gini coefficient of 0.45, on par with such countries as Iran (0.44) and Mexico (0.48); this is higher than the Gini coefficients of 94 of the 134 countries that have been studied, including China (0.42) and India (0.37), and much higher than Canada, Australia and all of Europe. Sweden has the lowest Gini coefficient at 0.23.
The United States’ Gini coefficient has been rising for decades; it was just 0.35 in the 1960s.
FACT #3: Among the 299 companies listed in the S&P 500 Index, the average CEO’s compensation was $11.4 million in 2010, or 343 times more than the median pay ($33,190) of American workers. The ratio of CEO pay to median worker pay was just 42:1 in 1980, and is currently 25:1 in Europe.
Bill Domhoff, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz, claims the ballooning of chief executives’ salaries in recent years has resulted from the fact that, for the most part, they set their own wages. “If you wonder how such a large gap could develop, the proximate, or most immediate, factor involves the way in which CEOs now are able to rig things so that the board of directors, which they help select — and which includes some fellow CEOs on whose boards they sit — gives them the pay they want,” Domhoff wrote in a 2011 articleon his website.
FACT #4: Between 1979 and 2005, the average after-tax income for the top 1 percent increased by 176 percent, compared with an increase of only 6 percent for the bottom 20 percent. Between 1990 and 2005, the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage actually declined by 9.3 percent when adjusted for inflation.
This rapid widening in the income gap between the rich and poor was identified in a 2007 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The report attributed the trend to tax policies that favor the wealthy. According to Domhoff, other contributing factors include the diminishing political clout of labor unions and decreased expenditure on social services.
FACT #5: Most Americans have no idea that the wealth distribution is as concentrated as it is, but regardless of their gender, age, income level or party affiliation, they believe wealth should be much more evenly distributed than they think it is.
In 2010, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University surveyed 5,522 Americans about their views on the country’s wealth distribution. They found that most respondents (regardless of their genders, ages, income levels and party affiliations) guessed that the top 20 percent of Americans hold about 60 percent of the wealth (rather than the 85 percent that they actually hold). Survey respondents also guessed that the bottom 40 percent hold between 8 and 10 percent of the wealth in the U.S. (rather than the 0.3 percent that they actually hold).