Robin Hood Hasn't a Chance

CARL T. ROWAN

February 23, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton has provoked some outrageous cries of pain from the wealthiest precincts of America. Polite privileged people accuse him of playing ''Robin Hood,'' trying to take money from the rich and give it to the lazy poor. Crasser fat cats call him a ''fraud,'' saying he campaigned as a ''new Democrat'' and quickly reverted to the worst ''tax and spend'' president of the century.

Those who are very rich and very conservative say he is a wild man who thinks foolishly that he can ''tax our way to prosperity.'' We're hearing that phrase, ''transfer of wealth,'' which always strikes terror in the hearts and wallets of the most affluent members of this society.

Well, before anybody jumps out of any penthouse windows, let me point out that nobody has ever succeeded at playing Robin Hood in America. The ''New Frontiers'' have come and the ''Great Society'' has gone, but there has never been any meaningful transfer of wealth from our privileged to our poor. Rich people always have found lawyers and accountants who found in every tax law enough loopholes to prevent any bleeding-heart politician from throwing their money to the masses.

In recent years, in fact, the rich have gotten richer while the poor got poorer. In 1960, before the tenure of John F. Kennedy, the lowest 20 per cent of American families got only 4.8 per cent of the nation's income. The top 20 per cent got 41.3 per cent of the money. The richest 5 per cent got 15.9 per cent of the moola.

Let's look at 1970, after the years in which Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly was transferring wealth to the poor. The lowest 20 per cent did gain to the point of getting 5.4 per cent of the income, and the fattest 20 per cent suffered a drop to 40.9 per cent of the bucks. The rich lost pennies. Some scandalous transfer of wealth!

What happened during the Reagan and Bush years? In 1991 the lowest 20 per cent of families got only 4.5 per cent of the income, while the share of the richest 20 per cent rose to 44.2 per cent.

You think that's obscene? Note that the share of income of the top 5 per cent of families rose from 15.9 per cent in 1960 to 17.1 per cent in 1991 -- which was more than the income of the lowest 40 per cent.

Note also that the gap between rich and poor is even wider in minority communities. In 1990 the lowest fifth of black families got a shameful 3.3 per cent of the income received by blacks, while the highest 20 per cent got 47.3 per cent. On a comparative basis, the top 5 per cent of blacks did better than whites, raking in 17.3 per cent of the money, to 17.1 per cent for white families.

Our system is stacked to ensure that ''them as has gits,'' regardless of race, creed or color. These Department of Commerce figures make it clear that no administration, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, has ever been able to play Robin Hood. We've had a lot of talk from a lot of politicians about ''economic justice,'' but nobody's been able to take much from the rich and give it to the poor.

Can Bill Clinton do it? Will he? I'll not believe it until Census Bureau figures document a genuine transfer of wealth.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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