Almost six years ago, as a result of the greed on Wall Street and the trickle-down economic policies of the George W. Bush administration, our country was on the verge of economic collapse. When Bush left office, we were hemorrhaging 700,000 private sector jobs a month and had a $1.4 trillion deficit largely as a result of unpaid for wars and huge tax breaks for the rich.
Today, while the economic situation is still not good, it is still much improved from where we were in the final months of the Bush administration. The official unemployment rate has gone from 7.8 percent to 6.7 percent. Nine million private-sector jobs have been created over the last four years. And the deficit has been cut by 60 percent in the last five years.
And, yet, the American people remain angry, frustrated and disillusioned. Why?
They are angry because, despite modest economic gains, the great middle class of this country — once the envy of the world — is disappearing, more people are living in poverty than at any time in our history and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth.
They are angry because real unemployment (counting those who have given up looking for work and those who are working part-time when they need a full-time job) is not 6.7 percent. It is 12.6 percent. Real youth unemployment is close to 20 percent. And black youth unemployment is double that.
They are angry because most of the new jobs created in today's economy are low-wage jobs, and millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages to pay their bills.
They are angry and embarrassed that, at 22 percent, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth and, not unrelated, more people in jail than any other country.
They are angry that typical middle-class family has seen its income go down by more than $5,000 since 1999 after adjusting for inflation. Incredibly, that same middle-class family had less income last year than it did 25 years ago — back in 1989.
They are angry that when they go shopping they are unable to purchase products made in the United States and that, since 2001, we have lost more than 60,000 factories and millions of decent-paying manufacturing jobs.
And perhaps most significantly, the American people are angry because they understand that the rules of the system are rigged against them and that today the only segment of society that is benefiting from the economy are the wealthy and the powerful.
While the middle class is collapsing and more people are living in poverty, the simple truth is that the wealthiest people in this country, Wall Street and the largest corporations have never had it so good.
Today, the top 1 percent own 38 percent of the financial wealth of America. The bottom 60 percent own all of 2.3 percent.
Today, the Walton family — the owner of Wal-Mart and the wealthiest family in America — is now worth $148 billion, which is more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.
Today, based on the latest studies, it is estimated that 95 percent of all new income has gone to the top 1 percent since the Great Recession. The top 25 hedge-fund managers made more than $24 billion last year, enough to pay the full salaries of more than 425,000 public school teachers.
Today, when 85 percent of the American people disapprove of the job that Congress is doing, it is clear to me that the president and Congress have got to start listening to the American people and acting on their behalf rather than representing the needs of corporate America and the rich. Among many other areas that Congress must focus on, here are some of the top priorities:
Jobs: If we are serious about rebuilding the middle class and putting millions of people back to work, we need a major federal jobs program that includes significant investments in our crumbling infrastructure, early childhood education and affordable housing.
Wages: If we are serious about cutting poverty, we need — among other things — to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. We should pass legislation, which will soon be voted on in the Senate, to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but that is not enough: we must raise that minimum wage even higher in the coming years.
Retirement security: If we are serious about retirement security, we must acknowledge that only one out of five Americans has a pension and more than two-thirds rely on Social Security for more than half their income. We must protect and expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity.
Climate change: If we are to address the planetary crisis of global warming, we must realize that the debate is over. The scientific community has been very clear: Global warming is real. It is caused by human activity. It is already causing massive problems. If we don't significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet we leave to our kids and grandchildren will be less and less habitable. The United States must lead the world in undertaking a massive effort to transform our energy system by moving away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. When we do that, we not only begin the process of reversing climate change, but we create millions of new jobs.
Those are just a few of the most important issues we face as a country. But it is more than that. The real struggle is whether we can prevent this country from moving to an oligarchic form of society in which virtually all economic and political power rests with a handful of billionaires. The true greatness of a country does not lie in the number of millionaires and billionaires it has. Rather, a great nation is one in which justice, equality and dignity prevail. That's what America is all about.
Bernie Sanders represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate as an independent.