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Jim Lee: Staggering disparities in wealth

It is staggering to me that 85 people have more accumulated wealth than 3.5 billion of the poorest among us.

Eighty-five people on one side of the scale. Three and a half billion people on the other side of the scale. Equal wealth.

My jaw dropped when they threw the graphic up on the television news showing that 1 percent of the world's population has almost half of the world's wealth.

The report released by Oxfam last week, "Working for the Few," notes that $110 trillion in the hands of the world's top 1 percent of the population represents a whopping 65 times the total wealth that is held by the bottom half of the world's population.

Maryland, like some other states, is taking up the issue of raising the minimum wage this legislative session. But the issue of income inequality goes far beyond just wages, and it impacts every single one of us.

Are you into politics? Well, if you don't have a lot of money, the chances are that you aren't going to be able to sway lawmakers to come around to your way of thinking. The more money is concentrated in the hands of a few, the less opportunity the rest of us have to influence lawmakers.

Opposed to social welfare programs that pay people to live off the government? Perhaps a look at corporate tax policies and subsidies would be a bit of an eye opener. A 2008 story by CBS News highlighted a congressional report that indicated two-thirds of all U.S. corporations paid no federal income taxes between 1998 and 2005. It has gotten worse since then.

In addition, many companies get subsidies or other tax breaks that lower their overall tax burdens. A lot has been written about how corporations are hoarding their wealth in the economic recovery. During the recession, they cut jobs, increased productivity and became stingy about pay increases. Now, with the economy coming back, they are reaping the benefits in higher profits which they are basically just holding onto.

There can be some justification for businesses being leery about investing in the future. The whole Affordable Care Act and changes to health care are a big question mark for businesses, but increasingly the businesses have been putting more of the cost of insurance coverage off on employees, making them pay a larger share or higher deductables. That's something that started before changes to the health-care law, as companies looked to control their skyrocketing health-care costs.

Health care isn't a big issue for that 1 percent who control almost half the world's wealth, but it is an issue for average workers who see their take-home pay declining as more and more of their earnings go toward insurance. Yet many people in the country still think changes to health care aren't necessary. Apparently they'd rather see their earnings continue to decline as health-care costs rise, and they consider this better for them than a law that allows you to get coverage for pre-existing conditions, allows your children to stay on your policies or bans insurance companies from dropping you when you get sick.

Go figure.

Salaries for many workers also have not been keeping up with inflation as companies continue to use any means necessary to improve their bottom lines and make themselves attractive to investors.

The stock market has rebounded nicely since the recession, but a big part of that is because companies are squeezing every dime out of workers while holding onto profits.

More people today have a stake in the stock market than ever before, so this isn't entirely a bad thing. Defined pensions with companies may be disappearing, but most still offer some sort of 401K and shared contribution plan. Lucrative pension plans doled out to government workers are still an issue, and they have been in the public's crosshairs in recent years, especially as governments at all levels have raised taxes to pay for other things. But in general most people still are not putting enough into their retirement accounts to allow themselves to actually retire. Plus, as we saw with the last recession, a downturn in the economy can devastate a person's retirement account.

A volatile market doesn't impact the top 1 percent as much as it does the rest of us. They aren't depending on that investment money as their sole way to pay for housing, food or even medicine in their golden years.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while income growth for the poor and middle classes slowed in the 1970s, income growth for the wealthy continued to expand. The trend is harmful to the economy because the rich are most likely to invest their earnings, while the poor and middle classes tend to spend additional earnings, thus prompting more economic growth.

There is a lot of room for debate on issues surrounding income inequalities, and I'm not sure there is any one action to be taken that would help even things out. One thing I do know, though, is that having just 1 percent control almost half of the world's wealth is not healthy for our economy, or for the billions of people who just want a roof over their heads and something to eat.

Perhaps, contrary to what some people think, a little redistribution of wealth would not be a bad thing.

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