The Common Good
November-December 1996

Wealth-Fare Reform

by Judy Coode | November-December 1996

Organizing to narrow the gap between rich and poor in America

Q: If every change in the federal income tax law made since 1977 were erased:

  • a. The richest 1 percent of American families- average income, $559,795 in 1995-would pay $15,674 more in taxes.
  • b. The average family-income, $32,681 in 1995-would pay $33 less in taxes.
  • c. All of the above.

Q:In 1995, after leading the Morrison Knudsen Corporation to $114 million in losses over the previous two years, William Agee resigned. The corporation:

  • a. Gave Agee a severance package estimated somewhere between $1.5 million and $4.8 million.
  • b. Laid off 277 workers with no severance package, citing "unprofitability."
  • c. All of the above.

Is anyone surprised that the answer to both questions above is "c"?

We all know gaps exist in our society-chasms created by race, sex, and education are just a few. But while some gaps grow smaller as Americans continue to integrate and coalesce, the gap between wealth and poverty grows larger every day, with no end in sight.

The Boston-based organization United for a Fair Economy was created in December 1994 by four activists who observed firsthand the crippling effects of the disparity between the very wealthy and the rest of the population. With experience in the labor, women's, and affordable housing movements, the founders recognized the connection between the poverty and powerlessness of the people they worked with and the fact that the wealthiest 1 percent of American households has more wealth and assets than the bottom 90 percent combined.

"We reframed the issues we were involved with" around the discrepancies in incomes, said Chuck Collins, co-founder and current co-director. For the American public, it "wasn't on the radar screen" that while the wealthy grow wealthier, the rest of the population seems to grow poorer.

The organization's purpose is to educate the American public about inequalities in income and corporate wealth, to show the probable results of the disparity, and to discourage scapegoating immigrants and the poor for economic instability. Formerly called Share the Wealth (which remains the name of their action and advocacy arm), United for a Fair Economy presents workshops, trains activists, sponsors legislation, and co-publishes Too Much, a quarterly newsletter full of easy-to-comprehend statistics and facts about the greed of corporate America and its traumatic effect on the rest of the country.

In the legislative arena, the project sponsors the non-partisan Economic Security Voter Education Project, which trains "citizen educators" to teach voters about economic issues in contested congressional races, and the Corporate Wealth-Fare Reform Campaign. This campaign designed the Corporate Responsibility Act, which would eliminate $800 billion over seven years in worthless subsidies for the country's biggest corporations, and the Income Equity Act, which urges livable wages and abolishes the privilege for big corporations of claiming huge salaries as deductions on their taxes.

IN THE PAST YEAR, the group's educational action arm, Share the Wealth, has presented a workshop,"The Growing Divide: Inequality and the Roots of Economic Insecurity," to more than 15,000 people in 450 training sessions for labor unions, religious congregations, schools, business associations, and community groups.

"We are known for our lively educational training," Collins said. The workshop includes a comprehensive information packet, audience participation, and striking experimental exercises that demonstrate the wealth gap. More than 150 volunteers have trained to lead Growing Divide workshops, with 45 leaders currently doing so.

Holding sessions at religious organizations and churches has been a major emphasis.

"It's one place where people can have a moral discussion about this issue," explains Collins. Workshops have been presented at mainstream denominations' national conventions, and the project has trained leaders to do programs with their own tradition.

The cost of a one-year membership in United for a Fair Economy is $25, which includes a subscription to Too Much.

For more information (including other projects under the United umbrella), a free copy of Too Much, or to arrange for a church or organizational presentation, contact United for a Fair Economy at 37 Temple Place, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02111; (617) 423-2148; fax (617) 695-1295.
E-mail: fairecon@stw.org;
Website: http://www.stw.org/uffe.

JUDY COODE is administrative assistant at the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office and a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.

Quiz questions originally appeared in Too Much, a quarterly newsletter published by the Council on International and Public Affairs and United for a Fair Economy.

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