Over the past 25 years the median US family income has gone up 18 percent. For the top one percent, however, it has gone up 200 percent. A quarter of a century ago the top fifth of Americans had an average income 6.7 times that of the bottom fifth. Now it is 9.8 times.
Inequalities have grown worse in different regions. In California, home to both Beverly Hills and the gang-ridden slums of Compton, incomes for lower class families have fallen by four percent since 1969. For upper class families they have risen 41 percent.
This has led to an economy hugely warped in favour of a small slice of very rich Americans. The wealthiest one percent of households now control a third of the national wealth. The wealthiest 10 percent control two-thirds of it. This is a society that is splitting down the middle and it has taken place against a backdrop of economic growth.
Between 1980 and 2004 America's GDP went up by almost two-thirds. But instead of making everyone better off, it has made only a part of the country wealthier, as another part slips ever more into the black hole of the working poor. There are now 37 million Americans living in poverty, and at 12.7 percent of the population, it is the highest percentage in the developed world.
Yet the tax burden on America's rich is falling, not growing. The top 0.01 percent of households has seen their tax bite fall by a full 25 percentage points since 1980. That was when 'trickle down' economics began, arguing that the rich spending more would benefit everyone as a whole. But America's poor have simply been getting poorer: clearly that theory has not worked in reality.
And still the American government is set on tax breaks for the rich. Bush's first-term tax cuts notoriously benefited the upper strata of American taxpayers. So much so that even Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world who benefited to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, has said the tax cuts 'scream of injustice'. As head of a hugely successful investment firm, it is hard to paint Buffet as a lefty liberal who hates Wall Street (though, bizarrely, some conservatives do try).
Still the tax cuts go on. This week one of the main political debates in Washington has been about scrapping the 'estate tax' whereby those who inherit large amounts from their relatives will be taxed on it. This overwhelmingly affects the wealthy. The estate tax is already set so high ($4m) that only one in 200 estates pay any tax at all when they are inherited. Unlike the UK's inheritance tax, which affects more and more Britons as house prices increase, this is not a problem faced by Joe and Jennifer Public.
Yet the White House and many politicians, overwhelmingly Republican, want to get rid of it. The lobbying campaign against it has been financed mostly by 18 business dynasties, including the family that owns WalMart. At the same time the Bush administration has sanctioned millions of dollars of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and the education budget as part of a measure aimed at reducing the spiraling deficit. This is, frankly, obscene.
The Observer | Comment | Wake up: the American Dream is over