To say that we live on a 1% planet isn’t just a turn of phrase. In fact, it would undoubtedly be more accurate to speak of a .1% or a .01% planet. In recent years, wealth and income inequalities have grownin a notorious fashion in the United States — and, as it turns out, globally as well. In January, Oxfam released a report on the widening gap between global wealth and poverty. It found that, between 2010 and today, the wealth of the poorest half of the planet’s population fell by a trillion dollars, a drop of 41%, while that of the richest 62 people (53 men and nine women) increased by half a trillion dollars. Put another way, those 62 billionaires were wealthier than the bottom 50% of the world’s people, while the richest 1% owned more than the other 99% combined. The direction in which we’re heading is obvious. Just consider that, in 2010, it took 388 of the super-rich to equal the holdings of the bottom 50%; now, that number is 326 people smaller.
Keep that trend line in mind as you read about TomDispatchregular Peter Van Buren’s latest adventures in the minimum-wage economy. Back in 2014, he described for this site how, having lost his State Department job for being a whistleblower on the Iraq War, he fell for a time into the low-wage world. As he wrote, “And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.” His experiences in a big-box retail store inspired him to write his novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. As last year ended, he returned to the minimum-wage world, now — thanks in particular to Bernie Sanders — part of the national conversation. And here’s what he found. Tom
Nickel and Dimed in 2016
You Can’t Earn a Living on the Minimum Wage
By Peter Van Buren
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?
Whether they know it or not, it’s something like this.
My Working Life Then
A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort tofood benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn’t afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)
At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.