If you’re rich in America, you’re elite among the elite. You can be a billionaire and not make Forbes’ annual list of the 400 richest Americans, which was released Monday. Sixty-one billionaires didn’t earn enough last year to make the cut.
If you’re rich in America, you have few equals. Your peer group is small.
If you’re rich in America — if you’re one of those on the Forbes list — your net worth is absurd. Those fortunate 400 have an average net worth of $1.3 billion. Bill Gates, Mr. Microsoft, owns a net worth of $72 billion. Investor Warren Buffett is next at $58.5 billion. The founders/CEOs/owners of Oracle Corp., Koch Industries and Wal-Mart trail behind.
Then there are the rest of us.
Those Americans, those with little and those with more than enough, are main characters in the story of income inequality in the United States. In 2012, the fortunate 400 and others within the top 1 percent of U.S. wage-earners took home 19.3 percent of the nation’s household income — surpassing the 1927 pre-Great Depression total of 18.7 percent, according to the Internal Revenue Service and economists at the University of California at Berkeley, Oxford University and the Paris School of Economics.
This isn’t merely a discussion about poverty. It’s a discussion about how factors that lead to inequality — poor education, tepid job growth, weak fiscal support of state-level programs such as schools, universities and job-training — aren’t just talking points for activists. Their effects are real. The human toll is great.
The South, our home, provides the example.
Data from MDC.org (formerly the Manpower Development Corp. of North Carolina) show the worsening of the region’s income inequality. Fourteen of the top 20 counties and 77 of the top 100 counties with the highest percentage of inequality are in the South. Additionally, the 20 Southern counties with the highest inequality rates suffer worse than Bolivia, a South American nation the CIA Factbook describes as “one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America.” MDC research shows that the worst Southern areas for inequality aren’t necessarily rural; metro areas such as New Orleans and Richmond, Va., are just as susceptible.
At hand is a picture of America, augmented by the South, of a great divide that is worsening. Until that divide is lessened, our nation, and our region, will suffer from the ills that come from such a wide fiscal expanse.