The Great Recession has sent millions more Americans below minimally acceptable standards of living, while heightening the extremes of wealth concentration at the very top. These are the stark and essential facts of our current economic crisis, captured in annually released Census Bureau data on poverty and income for three years running — and all but ignored in official policy debates. By 2009, poverty rates had risen to a 15-year high of 14.3 percent, while the actual numbers of people living below the poverty line, at some 43.6 million, were higher than at any time since rates were first officially recorded in the early 1960s. More than 35 percent of the nation's wealth was concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent of households, more than at any time since before the great stock market crash of 1929, while the proportion of wealth distributed to the bottom 80 percent of households stood at just 12.8 percent, according the Economic Policy Institute.
But these numbers are also a reflection of decades-old shifts in social and economic policy that have eroded working- and middle-class wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights; undermined publicly supported avenues to opportunity and upward mobility; shredded the social safety net by limiting benefits for needy families and giving states more flexibility to keep them off the rolls; and funneled the benefits of prosperity toward the rich by reducing top tax rates and favoring income from capital gains. Reversing these trends must be a top priority if the economy is ever going to recover from the Great Recession, starting with immediate measures to restore living wage jobs and incomes to the fast-growing numbers of people who are now struggling simply to get by.
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