Who are the 99 percent?

at 09:16 AM ET, 10/04/2011


(Ramin Talaie - BLOOMBERG)
“I did everything I was supposed to and I have nothing to show for it.”

It’s not the arrests that convinced me that “Occupy Wall Street” was worth covering seriously. Nor was it their press strategy, which largely consisted of tweeting journalists to cover a small protest that couldn’t say what, exactly, it hoped to achieve. It was a Tumblr called, “We Are The 99 Percent,” and all it’s doing is posting grainy pictures of people holding handwritten signs telling their stories, one after the other.

“I am 20K in debt and am paying out of pocket for my current tuition while I start paying back loans with two part time jobs.”

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These are not rants against the system. They’re not anarchist manifestos. They’re not calls for a revolution. They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it. Or, worse, they have tens of thousands in debt to show for it.

“I am a 28 year old female with debt that had to give up her apartment + pet because I have no money and I owe over $30,000.”

College debt shows up a lot in these stories, actually. It’s more insistently present than housing debt, or even unemployment. That might speak to the fact that the protests tilt towards the young. But it also speaks, I think, to the fact that college debt represents a special sort of betrayal. We told you that the way to get ahead in America was to get educated. You did it. And now you find yourself in the same place, but buried under debt. You were lied to.

“Married mother of 3. Lost my job in 2009. My family lost our health insurance, our savings, our home, and our good credit. After 16 months, I found a job -- with a 90 mile commute and a 25 percent pay cut. After gas, tolls, daycare, and the cost of health insurance, i was paying so my kids had access to health care.”

Let’s be clear. This isn’t really the 99 percent. If you’re in the 85th percentile, for instance, your household is making more than $100,000, and you’re probably doing okay. If you’re in the 95th percentile, your household is making more than $150,000. But then, these protests really aren’t about Wall Street, either. There’s not a lot of evidence that these people want a class war, or even particularly punitive measures on the rich. The only thing that’s clear from their missives is that they want the economy to start working for them, too.

“I am young. I am educated and hard working. I am not able to pay my bills. I am afraid of what the future holds.”

I don’t imagine that too many members of, say, the 97th percentile are writing in to this Web site. But imagine yourself as a young person who took out loans to go to college, got good grades, and has graduated into an economy that doesn’t seem to want you. You did everything you were told to do, and it didn’t work out. That hurts, of course, but it’s a bad economy, and everybody is suffering. At least, that’s what they say.

“i am a 19 year old student with 18 credit hours and 2 part time jobs. i am over 4000 dollars in debt but my paychecks are just enough to get me to school and back. next year my plan was to attend a 4 year college and get my bfa, but now i am afraid that without a co-signer i will have no shot at a loan and even if i can get a loan i am afraid that i will leave college with no future and a crippling debt.”

But you look around and the reality is not everyone is suffering. Wall Street caused this mess, and the government paid off their debts and helped them rake in record profits in recent years. The top 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income and 40 percent of its wealth. There are a lot of people who don’t seem to be doing everything they’re supposed to do, and it seems to be working out just fine for them.

“I went to graduate school believing that there might be some financial security afforded by a higher degree, and that with that security I could finally buy my mom her own house and take care of her. Instead, I have wasted six years of my life.”

Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the movement doesn’t have clear demands. It’s easy to explain how to punish the rich. You can tax them, or regulate their activities. It’s a bit hard to say how to make the economy work better for average people. There’s an intuition out there that part of the reason it’s not working better is that the rich hold too much political power, and so there’s a clear desire to reduce that political power, but it’s not clear how far that actually gets you in terms of bringing wages up.

“I am a 27 year old with a bachelor degree. I ran out of my student loans while trying to find a job. I am ‘living’ with my mother again to get back on my feet. So far, the best I can do is a part time retail job paying $8 an hour. I am hearing impaired with cochlear implant. My cochlear implant warranty expired. I do not have the money to renew it. How can I work at my new minimum wage job when my implant is broken? I need it to HEAR.”

But this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street -- or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement -- seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.

The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy -- work hard, play by the rules, get ahead -- has been broken, and they want to see it restored.

Related Links

Who are the 99 percent? Part 2

What Occupy DC wants: Less corporate money in politics

How Occupy Wall Street could succeed

 
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