A Sweet New Century for America’s Most Privileged

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The United States ended the 20th century on a roll — for the rich. Between 1973 and 2000, the nation’s most prosperous 1 percent tripled their incomes, after taking inflation into account.

The even more prosperous top tenth of that 1 percent did quite a bit better. Their incomes more than quintupled between 1973 and 2000, rising an amazing 414.6 percent.

And what about Americans of less exalted means, those stuck in the nation’s bottom 90 percent? Between 1973 and 2000, their incomes rose all of… 2.6 percent.

Something, in other words, went horribly wrong over the last quarter of the 20th century. And what has happened so far in century 21? Our decision makers in Washington have done their best to make things even worse.

How much worse? We now have a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Taxation and Economic and Policy that offers a distressing new answer.

The Institute’s researchers looked at all the major tax bills that members of Congress have passed — and Presidents have signed into law — since the start of our 21st century, every piece of legislation right up through the GOP tax cut signed into law this past December.

The researchers then calculated what households have paid in taxes under the new tax laws, for each year since 2000, and what they would have paid if Congress this century had made no changes to the nation’s tax code.

Taxpayers would have paid, the researchers found, $5.1 trillion more in taxes had America’s tax laws not changed. Who benefited from these trillions in tax savings?

Lawmakers have been assuring us, all along the way, that we would all benefit.

“This is about helping hard-working taxpayers across the board,” promised Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota last November as Republicans on the House Ways and means Committee began pushing the most recent of this century’s tax cuts into law.

But some Americans have benefited quite a bit more than others — and many others have barely seen any benefit at all.

All told, only 3 percent of this century’s tax cut savings have gone to America’s poorest 20 percent. Taxpayers at the other end of America’s income spectrum, those fortunate souls in the top 20 percent, have grabbed 65 percent of those savings, nearly two-thirds of the total.

Within that top 20 percent, well over half the benefits have gone to the top 5 percent, and over half those top 5 percent benefits have gone to the top 1 percent.

Steve Wamhoff, one of the Institute on Taxation and Economic and Policy researchers, has another interesting frame on the numbers.

“If you look at the richest 1 percent,” he notes, “they’re getting more than the bottom 60 percent of Americans.”

The exact numbers: The top 1 percent have grabbed 22 percent of the total savings from this century’s major tax bills. The bottom 60 percent have taken in just 19 percent of the total.

This century’s tax cuts have clearly not been about “helping hard-working taxpayers across the board.” They’ve been about tossing crumbs to people working two and three jobs to make ends meet and rewarding the already rich — with new yachts. Literally.

This past November, on the same day the full U.S. House of Representatives gave a green light to the latest GOP tax cut, the Florida mega-millionaire who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of writing new tax policies — Rep. Vern Buchanan —  spent somewhere over $3.25 million buying a new yacht.

Buchanan, the eighth-richest lawmaker in Congress, had good reason to celebrate. The tax cut signed into law this past December will save him as much as $2.1 million a year in taxes.

***

Reposted from Our Future

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Campaign for America's Future

Union Matters

The Big Drip

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

A rash of water main breaks in West Berkeley, Calif., and neighboring cities last month flooded streets and left at least 300 residents without water. Routine pressure adjustments in response to water demand likely caused more than a dozen pipes, some made of clay and more than 100 years old, to rupture.

West Berkeley’s brittle mains are not unique. Decades of neglect left aging pipes susceptible to breaks in communities across the U.S., wasting two trillion gallons of treated water each year as these systems near collapse.

Comprehensive upgrades to the nation’s crumbling water systems would stanch the flow and ensure all Americans have reliable access to clean water.

Nationwide, water main breaks increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018, according to a Utah State University study.  

These breaks not only lead to service disruptions  but also flood out roads, topple trees and cause illness when drinking water becomes contaminated with bacteria.

The American Water Works Association estimated it will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade and expand water infrastructure.

Some local water utilities raised their rates to pay for system improvements, but that just hurts poor consumers who can’t pay the higher bills.

And while Congress allocates money for loans that utilities can use to fix portions of their deteriorating systems, that’s merely a drop in the bucket—a fraction of what agencies need for lasting improvements.

America can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to a systemic nationwide crisis. A major, sustained federal commitment to fixing aging pipes and treatment plants would create millions of construction-related jobs while ensuring all Americans have safe, affordable drinking water.

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There is Dignity in All Work