The people aren’t powerless in the face of extreme inequality.

99% over 1% from Todd Blaisdell's flickr photostream (creative commons)In the coming weeks, millions of Americans will take to the streets as part of the “99 percent spring,” echoing last year’s “Arab Spring.”

At the root of this discontent are the extreme inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity that have emerged over the last four decades.

The richest 1 percent now owns over 36 percent of all the wealth in the United States. That’s more than the net worth of the bottom 95 percent combined. This 1 percent has pocketed almost all of the wealth gains of the last decade.

In 2010, the 1 percent earned 21 percent of all income, up from only 8 percent in mid-1970s. The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

These trends among the 1 percent are bad for the rest of us. Concentrated wealth translates into political clout — the power to use campaign contributions to rent politicians and tilt the rules of the economy in their favor.

Websites dramatizing the “We are the 99 percent” movement are full of personal stories of young people who are saddled with debt and no futures, and middle class families that have seen the American Dream collapse around them, losing jobs, homes, and hopes for the future.

“I used to dream about becoming the first woman president,” one woman wrote. “Now I dream about getting a job with health insurance.”

Reading these stories, I’m struck that the underlying conditions that have squeezed millions of Americans aren’t going away. The current political system, captured by large corporations and the wealthy, is incapable of responding to their needs.

The “99 to 1” dichotomy may strike some folks as polarizing and inaccurate. Yet it’s a powerful lens for understanding what’s happened to our society and economy over the last several decades. The rules guiding our economy have been skewed to benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent. These rules include tax policies, global trade agreements, and government actions that benefit asset owners at the expense of wage earners.

Who is the “1 percent”? Primarily it consists of households with annual incomes that top $500,000 and wealth exceeding $5 million. The 1 percent isn’t a monolithic interest group. Plenty of people within this group have devoted their lives to building a healthy economy that works for everyone. But there’s a small segment within the 1 percent — the “rule riggers” — who use their power and wealth to influence the political game so that they and their corporations get more power and wealth.

Just as individuals in the 1 percent are diverse actors, the 1 percent of corporations is also not unified. There are several thousand multinational corporations — the Wall Street inequality machine — that are the drivers of rule changes. But they are the minority. There are millions of other built-to-last corporations and Main Street businesses that strengthen our communities and have a stake in an economy that works for everyone.

We must defend ourselves from the bad actors — the built-to-loot companies whose business model is focused on shifting costs onto society, shedding jobs, and extracting wealth from our communities and the healthy economy.

This spring, watch for millions of people in motion, participating in protests at banks, outside lawmakers’ offices, and in the streets. They’ll be pressing for an economy that works for the 100 percent, not just the 1 percent. This is a healthy sign for our nation because it dramatizes that the people aren’t powerless in the face of extreme inequality.

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Editor's Note: This story distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative 3.0 License. OtherWords is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. Photo: 99% over 1% from Todd Blaisdell's flickr photostream (creative commons).
Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and directs IPS's Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He is an expert on U.S. inequality and author of several books, including Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity, co-authored with Felice Yeskel. (New Press, 2005). He co-authored with Bill Gates Sr. Wealth and Our Commonwealth, (Beacon Press, 2003), a case for taxing inherited fortunes. He is co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy, a book about Christian ethics and economic life.

He is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders, high-income households and partners working together to promote shared prosperity and fair taxation.

In 1995, he co-founded United for a Fair Economy (UFE) to raise the profile of the inequality issue and support popular education and organizing efforts to address inequality. He was Executive Director of UFE from 1995-2001 and Program Director until 2005.

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