Democratizing wealth, building an economy

Do you feel like you’re working harder than ever, but have less to show for it? Does it seem like corporations are running the world, and there’s nothing you can do? Would you like to have more say in how your community develops in terms of housing, food production, energy and transportation? Would you like to have more influence at work?

You’re not alone. The economy and power structures have changed, leaving less wealth and influence for the average person, while catapulting a select few into extreme wealth and power.

“The richest 400 Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 180 million taken together,” said Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland.

They are worth just over $2 trillion collectively, an average of $5 billion each, according to Forbes.

The top 1 percent has an average worth of about $8.4 billion. They control 43 percent of the nation’s wealth. The next 4 percent control an additional 29 percent of the wealth. That leaves only 28 percent to be controlled by everyone else.

Such disparity hasn’t existed since before the Great Depression.

Work harder, the upper class says, and you, too, can be rich. But this is not generally true. Americans have been working harder for decades, increasing productivity by 80 percent since 1979. Income, however, hasn’t kept pace. If it had, the average American worker would be making about $92,000 per year, instead of $51,000.

The disparity between the average worker and corporate executives has also increased, with executives being paid average bonuses amounting to 62 times the pay of the average worker, not even including the executives’ salaries.

The inequity results in real-life disparities, according to a panel on inequality. Rich people live an average of 79.2 years, while poor people live an average of 74.7 years. The wealthy get four-year college degrees at a rate of 55 percent. The poor get such degrees at a rate of only 8 percent, exacerbating their inability to get better-paying jobs.

Two thirds of Americans say inequality is a problem, according to Northwestern University professor Leslie McCall. It’s time for a change.

Community democracy helps create secure, rewarding, living-wage employment, healthy, safe and sustainable housing, food, energy and transportation, meaningful influence at work and in the community and more.

In Santa Barbara County, people have already begun making changes through work on cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises, such as the Green Broom Brigade in Lompoc, the countywide Mobile Homeowners Project, which is helping protect this affordable housing resource, and community gardens throughout the county.

Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN) is encouraging efforts like these, as well as property-tax reform, higher minimum wage, publicly owned alternative energy distribution, affordable housing, and moving funds to local credit unions and banks.

The Fund for Santa Barbara and others have also been supporting many of these initiatives.

You can learn more about, and help develop an action plan for democratizing wealth and building a community-sustaining economy in our region on May 1-2, when historian, political economist, activist and writer Gar Alperovitz visits Santa Barbara. SB CAN, Fund for Santa Barbara and others are sponsoring his visit.

Alperovitz was a fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, and of King’s College at Cambridge University, where he received his PhD in political economy. He has served as a legislative director in Congress, and as a special assistant in the U.S. State Department. For more information on the discussions, visit

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday in the Santa Maria Times, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.