poor Americans were a nation, the population would top Alaska, Arkansas,
Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana,
Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island,
South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming and the District of
That's using the Census Bureau's lowball poverty count of 35 million
If the Forbes 400 richest Americans were a nation, they could celebrate New
Year's together in a hotel ballroom. Don't look for "The Simple Life" rich
kids Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Their families don't come close to
making the list.
Forbes 400 combined wealth of $955 billion is greater than the gross
domestic product of Canada, the world's eighth-richest economy.
The wealth threshold for Forbes 400 admission is $600 million. The Hilton
family fortune, an estimated $360 million, is small by comparison.
The poverty thresholds for 2002 were $8,628 for a person 65 and older,
$9,359 for a person under 65, $12,400 for an adult and child, $14,480 for a
couple with one child, and $18,244 for a couple with two children. $18,244
isn't enough to buy the Patek Philippe gold watch and Hermes purse on the
Forbes index of luxury goods.
By the official measure, a senior with just $719 a month in Social Security
and other income was not poor. In reality America, many people above the
poverty line can't afford housing, utilities, food, healthcare,
transportation and other basic expenses, including taxes.
$719 won't get you a room for two nights at the Times Square Hilton for New
Year's. It will almost buy the box of 25 cigars on the Forbes luxury index.
The two Americas are moving further apart.
Forbes 400 combined wealth rose 10 percent over the past year. Since 1982,
when Forbes began the list, Forbes 400 wealth has jumped about 450 percent,
adjusting for inflation.
The poverty rate hit its best mark way back in 1973. The 2002 poverty rate
of 12.1 percent was 9 percent higher than 1973's. The 2002 child poverty
rate was 19 percent higher than its lowest point in 1969.
When the Forbes 400 began in 1982, there were 13 billionaires and 5 of them
were oilman H. L. Huntís children. Today there are 262 billionaires and 4 of
them are Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's children. Including Sam's widow
Helen, the Waltons hold ranks four through eight on the Forbes 400, with
$20.5 billion each.
The Waltons' combined $102.5 billion--up from $94 billion in 2002--nearly
matches the wealth of the three richest men: Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates
($46 billion) and Paul Allen ($22 billion) and megainvestor Warren Buffett
The Waltons' $8.5 billion wealth gain in the past year is more than the
total budget for Head Start, serving nearly 1 million children.
While the Wal-Mart heirs are among America's richest, Wal-Mart workers are
among America's poorest.
Wal-Mart's U.S. workers--most without health benefits--average just $8 an
hour, compared with $12 in retail trade generally. Wal-Mart's average wage
is lower than the 1968 minimum wage of $8.51, adjusted for inflation. Now
the world's largest company, Wal-Mart is rolling back wages in the growing
areas it dominates from America to China.
Wal-Mart's CEO pay, by contrast, rose 1,767 percent between 1995 and 2003,
according to compensation expert Graef Crystal. CEO Lee Scott's 2003 pay
package of $29.8 million amounts to more than $3,400 for every hour of every
day of the year.
Thanks in part to poverty-level wages, hunger and homelessness are up
sharply, according to the new U.S. Conference of Mayors survey. Emergency
food requests jumped an average 17 percent over the past year and emergency
shelter requests rose 13 percent in the 25 cities surveyed.
Among those requesting food assistance, 59 percent were families with
children, and 39 percent of adults were employed. Among the homeless, 40
percent are families with children, 17 percent are employed and 10 percent
Emergency food and shelter providers turn people away because they cannot
cope with the rising demand.
Let's make a national New Year's resolution: raise the low wages that
contribute to hunger, homelessness and poverty in this richest nation on
is coauthor of Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of
permission and other correspondence,
email@example.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service ©
Copyright 2003 Holly Sklar.
Other Articles by Holly Sklar
Tunnel Vision in Iraq
Raw Deal for Workers on Minimum Wage
CEO Pay Still Outrageous
Working-Class Soldiers, Upper-Class Tax Cuts
Racial Gaps Still Wide This King Holiday