The good news is that the economy today is much better than it was six years ago when George W. Bush left office. The bad news is that, despite these improvements, the 40-year decline of the American middle class continues. Real unemployment is much too high, 35 million Americans continue to have no health insurance and more of our friends and neighbors are living in poverty than at almost any time in the modern history of our country.
Meanwhile, as the rich become much richer, the level of income and wealth inequality has reached obscene and unimaginable levels. In the United States, we have the most unequal level of wealth and income distribution of any major country on earth, and worse now then at any other time since the 1920s. Today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent of our nation owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and one family owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent. In terms of income, 99 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.
This is what a rigged economic system looks like. At a time when millions of American workers have seen declines in their incomes and are working longer hours for lower wages, the wealth of the billionaire class is soaring in a way that few can imagine. If you can believe it, between 2013 and 2015, the 14 wealthiest individuals in the country saw their net worth increase by over $157 billion dollars. Children go hungry, veterans sleep out on the streets, senior citizens cannot afford their prescription drugs -- and 14 individuals saw a $157 billion dollar increase in their wealth over a two-year period.
The grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing is not just a moral and economic issue, it is a political issue as well. As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, billionaires are now able to spend unlimited sums of money to buy the candidates they want. The Koch brothers, an extreme right-wing family, recently announced that they were prepared to spend some $900 million in the next election cycle. This is likely more money than either the Democratic or Republican parties will spend. If you think that it is an accident that the Republican Party has become a far-right party, think again. The Koch brothers' agenda -- ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the U.S. Postal Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and all campaign finance limitations -- has become the agenda of the Republican candidates they fund.
And, by the way, if you think that the Republican Party's refusal to acknowledge that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and is a severe threat to our planet, is not related to how we finance campaigns, you would be sorely mistaken. With the Koch brothers (who make much of their money in the fossil fuel industry) and big energy companies strongly supporting Republican candidates, it should not surprise anyone that my Republican colleagues reject the views of the overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate issues.
With Republicans now controlling both houses of Congress, let me briefly touch on some of the battles that I will be helping to lead in this extreme right-wing environment. In my view, with so many of our fellow citizens demoralized about the political process, it is absolutely imperative that we establish a strong progressive agenda that Americans can rally around. It must be an agenda that reflects the real needs of the working families of our country. It must be an agenda that engages people in a political struggle that they are prepared to fight for.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: The truth is that real unemployment in our country is not the "official" and widely-reported 5.5 percent. Counting those who are under-employed and those who have given up looking for work, real unemployment is 11 percent. Even more disturbingly, youth unemployment is close to 17 percent and African-American youth unemployment is much higher than that.
If we are truly serious about reversing the decline of the middle class and putting millions of people back to work, we need a major federal jobs program. There are a number of approaches which can be taken, but the fastest way to create jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure -- roads, bridges, dams, levees, airports, rail, water systems and wastewater plants.
In that regard, I have introduced legislation which would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country's physical infrastructure. This legislation would create and maintain at least 13 million good-paying jobs. It would also make our country more productive, efficient and safe.
I will also continue my opposition to our current trade policies and vote against fast tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Simply put, our trade policies have failed. Permanent normal trade relations with China have led to the loss of more than 3.2 million American jobs. The North American Free Trade Agreement has led to the loss of nearly 1 million jobs. The Korean Free Trade Agreement has led to the loss of some 60,000 jobs.
We have got to fundamentally rewrite our trade rules so that American jobs are no longer our No.1 export. Corporate America must start investing in this country, not China.
As we struggle for decent-paying jobs, we must also rebuild the trade union movement. Throughout the country, millions of workers want to join unions but are meeting fierce opposition from their employers. We need legislation that makes it easier, not harder, for unions to flourish.
Raising Wages: Today, millions of Americans are working for starvation wages. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is totally inadequate. In fact, the real value of today's minimum wage has declined by one-third since 1968. By raising the minimum wage to a living wage we can provide an increase in income for those people who need it the most. Our goal must be that no full-time worker in this country lives in poverty.
We must also bring about pay equity. There is no rational reason why women should be earning 78 cents on the dollar compared to men who perform the same work.
Further, we have got to expand overtime protections for millions of workers. It is absurd that "supervisors" who earn $25,000 a year are currently forced to work 50 or 60 hours a week with no overtime pay. Raising the income threshold to at least $56,680 from the absurdly low level of $23,660 a year for overtime will mean increased income for many millions of salaried workers.
Addressing Wealth and Income Inequality: Today the richest 400 Americans own more than $2.3 trillion in wealth, more than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings and have no idea how they will be able to retire with dignity.
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