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Ken Plum: Beyond Thanksgiving Day

Happy Thanksgiving Day to you and your family! In previous columns on this date I have presented the historic evidence clearly establishing that the first Thanksgiving celebration took place at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia on Dec. 4, 1619 – several years before the Pilgrims ever left England to come to Plymouth Colony. Unfortunately the Virginia colony did not survive to keep the tradition alive, thereby forfeiting to the Pilgrims the more commonly used date for the celebration of the harvest. Setting aside this minor debate over a historic beginning, there is a much more serious debate that needs to take place as we celebrate our blessings and bounty.

kenplum2That debate revolves around the fact that while some are celebrating and feasting on Thanksgiving a record number of people in this country are unemployed, hungry and losing hope. The shocking income inequality with the shrinking middle class over the past couple of decades is well documented. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has become the chief spokesperson for the cause and has presented the facts very graphically and glaringly at Starting in the 1970s, one percent of Americans have been taking home 20 percent of the country’s income and own 35 percent of its wealth.

It is easy to look at a set of numbers that point to a problem and conclude that the problem is happening someplace else and not here, but a recent report by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis found that the problem exists in Virginia. In a recent press release, “Rising Inequality Lifting Some Virginians, Sinking Others,” the Institute reported that since the recession the top 10 percent of earners (making at least $47.97 per hour) have seen their wages grow over 8 percent while the wages of the bottom 10 percent (making $8.19 or less per hour) are now over 7 percent below their pre-recession level. “As a result of these trends, Virginia faces record levels of inequality that threaten the state’s economic stability and long-term prosperity because the middle class and low-income households that make up most of the population aren’t earning enough to buy the goods and services the economy is capable of producing,” according to Michael Cassidy, President and CEO of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. The report also states that in 2012 the top 10 percent in Virginia made 2.7 times as much as the median worker. Only California had a greater disparity. Over the past 30 years wages for the top 10 percent of earners grew 19 times as fast as those at the bottom.

Thanks to all who contributed to Thanksgiving baskets this year, but the problem is not a one-day challenge. It is time to look beyond Thanksgiving to start to resolve the income inequality that exists in this state and country. As Reich points out, the problem is fixable.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.