Like it or not, the sharp inequality in the country is a fundamental issue.
The gap between the richest and the rest of us is greater than it has been since 1929—a notable year. The gap between the pay of CEOs and top executives and the average pay of their companies' workers has grown into a yawning chasm compared with the ratio just a couple of decades ago.
One can believe, along with deluded oligarchs such as Tom Perkins, that any criticism of the rich is like Kristallnacht—or, more reasonably, that without the drivers of wealth, the entire society would falter and fail to grow. Or one can believe, as some studies show, that social mobility has not fundamentally changed in several decades—that Americans can still move up the ladder.
Or one can believe that the failure to deal with the stagnant incomes of the lower half of the population will lead to a sag in demand that will itself imperil growth. And one can believe that as our population ages and people live longer—making the ratio of Social Security contributors to Social Security beneficiaries much less favorable—stagnant or lower incomes will undermine the viability of the entire system, much less the ability of those relying solely or mostly on Social Security to get by.
Whatever combination of those things you believe, one thing should be accepted universally: If Americans lose the sense of the American Dream—that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can rise to the absolute limits of your own abilities—and if Americans gain a sense that the rich get richer while the rest of us get screwed, our national unity will be imperiled, and the opportunities for real demagogues to emerge will grow.
Is there any way to deal with this problem that doesn't get caught in our partisan, ideological, and tribal crosshairs? There is, and I am surprised it has not entered our policy discourse at all as the debate over inequality and adequate living standards has raged.
It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman as cosponsor. The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child's life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees' Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 8.5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000.*
The initial idea of KidSave was to provide a retirement supplement to Social Security, making it easier in some ways to reform Social Security to achieve fiscal solvency. But the concept can serve multiple purposes at a very small cost.
Imagine if we adjusted the KidSave rules so that at certain pivot points in life, individuals could withdraw a portion of their nest egg to pay for college expenses or a down payment on a house or a medical or other emergency, or even the creation of a small business, while still making sure that a substantial share of the funds would stay in a retirement account. We could ameliorate many of the problems facing hard-pressed middle-class and working-class families and encourage entrepreneurship, while protecting a major nest egg for retirement years. No doubt, some would squander or misuse the money, but for most, it would provide an opportunity and a lifeline.
More than 65 percent of Americans have a net worth of less than $100,000. The average net worth in the U.S. is about $37,000. But averages disguise another reality: the dramatic differences in net worth between the bottom and the top. The wealth owned by the top 1 percent of the population is more than 37 percent of the total; the top 20 percent own 87.7 percent of the wealth. KidSave would significantly change all those numbers and ratios, and provide a cushion of wealth for those at the bottom of the ladder.
KidSave drew support from liberals and conservatives, from unions and business interests, from the Heritage Foundation and AARP. For conservatives, it meant a universal investor class. For liberals, it meant giving wealth and security to tens of millions of people who have little or nothing. But for reasons I can't explain, it went nowhere.
The same was true of a second iteration of the program, where each child would get an initial $2,000 loan at birth from Social Security, with the money also placed in a retirement account invested through the Thrift Savings Plan; the initial $2,000, as adjusted for inflation, would be paid back in five annual installments starting at age 30, but with the accrued investment growth continuing to build in the individual's account. That plan was cosponsored by Kerrey and fellow Senators Rick Santorum, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Grassley, and John Breaux, but it still died on the vine.
In his State of the Union message, President Obama proposed a commendable plan for starter retirement accounts, MyRA, providing an incentive for workers to have small amounts automatically withdrawn from their salaries to invest in principal-protected Treasury bonds. Nice, but tiny. KidSave is much more ambitious, with much greater potential. Why not give every American a piece of the pie? If the cost, in the end, were even $20 billion a year, that is chump change in a $17 billion economy—and, of course, money that would all be invested in America. KidSave is an idea whose time has come.
* Correction: This post originally misstated the rate of return required to produce this size nest egg. We regret the error.