COVID Rages on as Inequality Explodes. It’s Time to Tax Billionaires

In Summary

Reverends Dr. William Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis with the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as Oxfam America’s CEO and President Abby Maxman pen this powerful Op-ED on the raging inequality across the globe and in the US, specifically building off of Oxfam’s new “Inequality Kills” report.

-Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, President of Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival 

-Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival 

-Abby Maxman, CEO and President of Oxfam America 

As the world reels from the omicron surge, it is time we reckon with a dramatic and immoral failure of the world’s power holders to meet the challenges of this historic pandemic. A new report out today from Oxfam finds that inequality has not only worsened over the last two years, it has become deadly.  

In stark terms: the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began, from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, at a rate of $1.3 billion a day. Meanwhile, the incomes of 99% of humanity have fallen because of the pandemic and one person is dying every four seconds from lack of access to healthcare, gender-based violence, hunger and climate change.  

This is not by chance but by choice. Economic violence has been perpetrated on an international scale, as structural policy choices have been made to favor the wealthiest and most powerful while the rest of humanity suffers.   

The U.S. is not immune to this mounting inequality. Before the pandemic, three people owned as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the U.S. population and 140 million people were poor or living one emergency away from economic ruin. Now, it’s 2022, effective financial relief programs have endedmillions of people remain out of work, and household debts are over $15.2 trillion. Despite omicron leading to record daily caseloads, the CDC is reducing its isolation and quarantine requirements, yielding to pressure from big businesses to force low-wage workers back to the marketplace.    

RELATED: Inequalities In COVID-19 Present Opportunities

Many of these businesses have done exceedingly well during the pandemic. Indeed, while millions of people have scrambled to survive, the wealthy have seen an unprecedented gain—over $2 trillion—in riches. That gain is more than the entire price tag of the Build Back Better Act – a plan that would benefit millions of people and reduce the number of children who live below the poverty line by 40%, yet it languishes in Congress.   

It is fitting to address this inequality on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, who was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in the last years of his life. He and other organizers from the ranks of the poor were directing their efforts toward the glaring contrast between wealth and poverty in the richest country in the world. They called for a “revolution of values” and a “radical redistribution of economic and political power” in a nation that was continuing to spend more on war than on programs of social uplift.   

More than 50 years later, Oxfam and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are picking up this unfinished work with the conviction that a better way forward is possible. Indeed, as a society, we already know how to address inequality. Here are just a few examples:   

After nearly 40 years of largely stagnated wages for the majority of Americans, we must raise pay to a living wage, so people aren’t working in poverty. The minimum wage now stands at the poverty rate of $7.25 an hour or $15,080 a year, even though food costs have risen 25%, shelter 28% and medical care 40% since the last raise in 2009. To protect low-wage workers, we must also remove barriers to joining and forming unions, which have a long history of reducing inequality.    

RELATED: US household wealth hits record even as economy struggles 

We must change the tax system so wealthy people and corporations pay their fair share. Over decades, the tax system has tilted wildly to benefit the wealthy and corporations. The 2017 tax cut drained our coffers and shifted the tax burden onto households unable to afford it. Now, we must raise taxes on the rich and corporations and use that revenue to fully fund socially beneficial programs like an expanded Child Tax Credit, regular and guaranteed income supports, universal health care and jobs programs that facilitate a green transition.   

We must fight voter suppression and defend every person’s right to vote for any of this to be possible. Today, we have fewer voting rights than we did after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and we are in the midst of the greatest assault on democracy since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War. If our democracy is to outlast the deadening weight of inequality, our government can no longer filibuster the franchise.  

All of these policy interventions, and more, are the building blocks of what we call the Third Reconstruction (following Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era). Indeed, such a national project of reconstruction is what Dr. King had in mind when he said that “the whole structure of American life must be changed.” These words resonate just as clearly today, and we might add the same is true the whole world over. 

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