Across the great divide 

See those flames on the horizon?

In Montana, where our per capita income sits near the bottom of the national barrel, we barely see the tremendous disparity between rich Americans and the rest of us. But it's out there, it's growing, and so is the level of citizen frustration. Eventually, the have-nots will go after the haves, whether with pitchforks and torches or re-enactments of the Bastille. One of these days America will have to find a way to bridge the great divide or risk open rebellion of a kind we haven't seen in nearly 50 years.

The income and net worth gap is not particularly new and is nowhere else as evident as it is between the CEOs of many large corporations and the paltry wages they pay the people who work for them. Daily Finance took a look at 10 very well known corporations and what they found, in one sentence, is, "It's still not unusual for the CEO of a large public company to earn more per day than some of his employees earn over the course of an entire year."

Want the numbers? Here they are for 2009. CVS–the drug store chain in many Montana towns: CEO Thomas M. Ryan made $30.4 million. The starting cashiers make $8 per hour or $20,800 per year. "One CEO=1,461 entry-level employees." AT&T's CEO Randall Stephenson copped $29 million while his starting sales associates made $10 an hour. One CEO=1,123 entry-level employees. Or how about those lovable Walt Disney folks? CEO Robert Iger pulled down $29 million while Disneyland Hotel House-keepers get their $10 an hour for $26,000 a year. One CEO=1,115 entry-level employees. And hey, want a Big Mac? Consider this: McDonalds CEO James A. Skinner got paid $17.6 million for his time while his grease-spattered burger flippers rolled in at $7.25 per hour for a whopping $18,850 a year. One CEO=933 entry-level workers. The list goes on, but there's no need to continue. You get the picture. You can bet those workers will be driving used cars while their bosses lift champagne in their private jets.

In Montana, Federal Reserve data says our per capita income was about $24,000 in 2000 and about $35,317 today. What's that mean? Well, when you add all the wealthy people in Montana (and there are some) and all the not-wealthy people, and divide their incomes, the "average" Montanan is slightly better off than burger flippers, but still a thousand times less well-off than corporate CEOs who make more in one day than most Montanans do for a year's work.

Even more troubling, the latest census data shows a startling disparity in wealth based on race and ethnicity. Thanks to the extremely uneven effects of the recession and what's passing for a recovery, white people are now worth 20 times more than blacks and 18 times more than Hispanics. The numbers, which were analyzed and released by the Pew Research Center on Tuesday, are shocking and leave little room for doubt, with median wealth for white U.S. households in 2009 at $113,149 compared with $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for black Americans.

According to Roderick Harrison, former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau and now a sociologist at Howard University: "I am afraid this pushes us back to what the Kerner Commission characterized as 'two societies, separate and unequal.' The great difference is that the second society has now become both black and Hispanic." Paul Taylor, Pew's director of Social and Demographic Trends put it even more bluntly: "The findings are a reminder—if one was needed—of what a large share of blacks and Hispanics live on the economic margins. When the economy tanked, they're the groups that took the heaviest blows."

If those numbers sound bad, consider some of the other findings. Thirty-five percent of black households and 31 percent of Hispanic households had zero or negative net worth–which means one out of every three blacks and Hispanics basically has nothing.

Meanwhile, the gap between all racial and ethnic groups has now widened even further, with the top 10 percent of U.S. households holding a whopping 56 percent of the wealth. In stark numbers, that means about 31 million rich Americans control more wealth than 290 million of their fellow citizens.

The release of this data couldn't come at a more critical moment in our nation's history. As Congress and President Obama wrestle with trying to raise the national debt ceiling, many of the programs that help less affluent people regardless of color or ethnicity are on the chopping block. As most folks know, that means Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, housing assistance, heating assistance, education grants and more.

What's the future look like when your worth is less than a used car's? In a word, bleak. And where do you turn when your government decides that keeping tax breaks for the already wealthy is more important than providing assistance, education, food and shelter for hundreds of millions of citizens? Considering that the vast majority of the disadvantaged live in urban centers, the only place they can turn to is the streets.

We've seen this before, when race riots ravaged Detroit, Philadelphia, Watts, and many more urban centers in the "long, hot summer of 1967." National guard troops were called out to put down the populace–which they did.

Clearly, the Republicans have "entitlement" programs in their crosshairs even as President Obama and far too many Democrats seem to have forgotten that they are the party of working people, not the rich.

Now's the time to stand up for those workers, before our nation goes up in flames again.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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