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MLive and West Michigan Billionaires: On the need to redefine wealth

March 22, 2017

It’s another year and the richest people in Michigan are getting even richer.

Yesterday, MLive posted a story based on the annual Forbes listing of the wealthiest people on the planet. 

The MLive story focuses mostly on the wealthiest people in West Michigan, noting that Doug & Hank Meijer have the most combined wealth at $7.2 billion, followed by Rich DeVos, with estimated wealth at $5.6 billion. Other Michigan billionaires mentioned in the article call Detroit home, Marian Ilitch and Dan Gilbert, worth $6 billion and $5.8 billion respectively.

Towards the end of the article it states:

“The number of billionaires globally climbed 13 percent to a record 2,043 from 1,810 last year, according to Forbes. Their total net worth jumped by 18 percent to $7.67 trillion, another record.”

The number of billionaires and their total net worth are staggering. However, what the MLive article fails to discuss are how the wealthiest people increased their wealth and why there is such a significant wealth gap.

Just telling us that the rich got richer doesn’t really inform us. In fact, regurgitating the Forbes list doesn’t benefit the public at all. What the MLive article actually does is to continue to protect the wealthiest people by implying that these people are wealthy simply because they earned it.

There are plenty of reasons why there is such a huge gap between the wealthiest people in the US and the rest of us. The Urban Institute has 9 charts about Wealth Inequality in America, that are informative and instructive. 

One chart, which is interactive, shows how wealth is concentrated at the top.

The Institute for Policy Studies also has some important visuals to help us understand the wealth gap in the US. 

Part of the wealth gap in the US is rooted in White Supremacy, which as a system of oppression, has benefited white people over communities of color. The graphic below illustrates the wealth disparity along racial lines, where the top 400 wealthiest people have more wealth than 16 million Black households or 15 million Latino households.

However, even these charts fail to fully communicate the reasons why there are so few wealthy people, who are increasing their wealth, and so many people experiencing poverty.

United for a Fair Economy publishes an annual report on both economic and racial disparities in the US. The report uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of The Dream, but quite often is comes across as a nightmare, considering the growing racialized wealth gap in the country. 

What is really important in this year’s report, is the deep historical factors that have determined the wealth gap in America. In the graphic below, you can see from the pre-colonial period up to the beginning of the 20th century, ways in which the policy gave a boost to some people, yet blocked so many others.

These historical factors led the report’s authors to conclude in the Strategies Moving Forward section, that reparations for Blacks and indigenous communities as the number one priority. Reparations would indeed be an important first step, but it would only go so far as long as the existing economic and political systems were allowed to remain in the hands of the wealthiest people.

Redefining what is means to be wealthy

Maybe one of our problems is how we talk about and name wealth. Most rich people, like the Meijer and DeVos patriarchs, often refer to themselves as self-made men. The fact is that these men completed relied on the labor of others in order to obtain their wealth. And not only did they rely on the labor of others, they counted on those laborers as being compliant and not rising up to demand the wealth they helped create.

In addition, we might think about referring to those we call wealthy as criminals, especially when considering how many people in Grand Rapids alone are suffering from  poverty. Thousands of households in this community are suffering from malnutrition, high stress, fatigue, poor living conditions and limited access to education and health care. The very fact that one in four children live in poverty in Grand Rapids is a crime, while so few have so much.

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