Boom Time for Billionaires

By Holly Sklar

The economy is booming again, if you're a billionaire. The new Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans has 313 billionaires -- up 51 billionaires from 262 last year.

Donald Trump is just an average Joe among the Forbes 400. Trump's $2.6 billion net worth puts him right about the Forbes 400 average of $2.5 billion.

Microsoft's Bill Gates leads the list with $48 billion, followed by Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett with $41 billion. The heirs to the founder of low-wage Wal-Mart hold down half the Forbes 400 top ten spots, ranking numbers four through eight on the list, with $18 billion each.

It took a minimum of $750 million to make the Forbes 400 this year. That's way up from last year's $600 million. It won't be long before the Forbes 400 is billionaires only.

What's a billion dollars anyway? You'd have to rake in $1 million every day for 1,000 days to reach a billion bucks.

The $1 trillion in combined wealth held by the 400 richest Americans is nearly as much as the combined wealth of the more than 50 million households in the less moneyed half of the population.

It's boom time for billionaires, not for most Americans. The economy is growing, but wages are falling, poverty is rising and the middle class is shrinking.

As the Census Bureau reported recently, the number of Americans below the poverty line grew by more than a million people in 2003, reaching 36 million. The official poverty rate rose to 12.5% -- up from 12.1% in 2002, 11.7% in 2001 and 11.3% in 2000.

The poverty rate would be much higher if the poverty line were adjusted to realistically reflect the cost of minimally adequate housing, healthcare, food and other necessities such as childcare for employed parents.

A family of four was not considered poor unless their income was below $18,810 in 2003. A week's worth of income at $18,810 -- $362 -- wouldn't cover the $663 box of 25 cigars on the Forbes 400 "Cost of Living Extremely Well" index.

Median household income (half earn below the median; half earn above it) dropped to $43,318 in 2003. That's $1,604 less than it was in 1999, when the median was $44,922, adjusting for inflation.

The share of national income going to the middle class last year was nearly the lowest on record, with data back to 1967. The share going to the bottom fifth of households was the lowest on record.

Households with incomes above $1 million will receive tax cuts averaging $123,600 in 2004, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That will cause their after-tax income to jump by more than 6% -- widening the gap with those below.

The changes in federal tax policy legislated between 2001 and 2003 "ended up transferring income share from the bottom 99% to the top 1%," the Economic Policy Institute reports in "The State of Working America."

As the Wall Street Journal put it, "The Bush tax cuts, which included a reduction in the top tax rate, as well as reductions in taxes on estates, capital gains and dividends, helped bolster the fortunes of the fortunate."

Many Forbes 400 members are now bolstering Bush. Forbes reports, "Members of The Forbes 400 overwhelmingly support President Bush -- judging by their pocketbooks. Of the 240 rich listers who contributed money to either campaign directly, a whopping 72% gave to Bush."

Forbes 400 members and their corporations are getting tax cuts while jobs are being outsourced, profits moved offshore, and the national debt is swelling.

Forbes 400 members are getting tax cuts while teachers, firefighters and police get pink slips.

Forbes 400 members are getting tax cuts while more Americans can't afford health insurance or college.

Are those your priorities?

It's boom time for billionaires, and more people can't pay their bills.

It's boom time for billionaires, and more people are living in poverty while working full time.

It's boom time for billionaires, and the middle class is shrinking.

Is this your American Dream?

Holly Sklar is coauthor of Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us ( Email

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2004 The Progressive Populist