Far from the street theater and lefty ravings of the Occupy Wall Street protest, ordinary people are posting dispatches about their economic struggles at the “We Are the 99 Percent” Web page.
If you put aside the political rants and the obnoxious construct of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent — which has the whiff of the guillotine about it — the stories are a stark pointillist portrayal of the grinding misery of the Great Recession.
And Bank of America has very little to do with it. The recession has added a layer of joblessness on top of punishingly dysfunctional and expensive health-care and higher-education systems. Despite themselves, the people posting at the 99 percent page aren’t really making an implicit case for burning down the financial system, but for blowing up how we handle health care and higher education.
College students and recent graduates are overrepresented. Their complaint comes down to too much debt, and too few job opportunities to get out from under it. There’s the guy with the master’s from Harvard who owes $60,000 and lives off temp jobs. There’s the woman who is paying her own $50,000 in debt plus $20,000 in debt for her 22-year-old daughter. There’s the graduate with a master’s from “a major U.S university” who is unemployed and $92,000 in hock. And on and on.
The representatives of these debt-burdened graduates shouldn’t be at Zuccotti Park, but at the American Association of University Professors or some other arm of the academic complex that gouges students. College tuition has been increasing at a rapid clip. Does anyone believe that higher ed is getting constantly better? It’s an inflationary spiral, partly driven by a federal student-loan program that feeds the maw of the beast regardless of quality or outcomes.
Another running theme is the high cost of health care and the lack of insurance. One man writes of his job “that pays 15 percent less than it did five years ago” even as “health insurance costs are up over 175 percent.” Expressing a characteristic plaint in an era of stagnating income, he says “Everything costs more yet I make less!”
Many of those posting their stories are members of the working class or struggling middle class. There is an undercurrent of family breakdown — the woman whose husband left her after 30 years, the hard-pressed single moms. There are tales of men losing decent-paying jobs and finding nothing comparable. One woman tells of her 27-year-old brother, who was laid off from his construction job and now “works at my county’s fairgrounds getting paid $12.00 an hour.”
Such downward mobility is a dismaying constant. “We Are the 99 Percent” could illustrate the Don Peck cover story in a recent issue of The Atlantic, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” He argues that the recession has only augmented long-running trends — globalization, technology, the premium on education — blighting the prospects of “the non-professional middle class,” and especially its men.
The puerile ideology of Occupy Wall Street is irrelevant to all of this. Goldman Sachs could be dissolved tomorrow and the wealth of the 1 percent confiscated, and it wouldn’t make college or health care cheaper, or create one new job. If the “revolution” yearned for by the protesters is insipid, there’s no doubt that the moment calls for bold economic reforms and a rethinking of health care and higher education.
Pres. Barack Obama’s misbegotten contribution is a health-care law that won’t control costs and will insure more people only while making the current system more unsustainable. Republicans often don’t even bother to try to connect their program to the troubles of workers down the income scale. The leading establishment Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, wants to cut their capital-gains taxes. The leading tea-party presidential candidate, Herman Cain, wants to raise their taxes.
If nothing else, “We Are the 99 Percent” is a reminder that the suffering is real.