What OWS Was Trying To Tell Us Last Year. And Why We Should Listen This Election Year.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement has moved from Wall Street to Zuccotti Park, and is generally being dismantled across the nation, there’s still time to remind ourselves what this fledgling movement is all about. After speaking to consumers about their money recently, we have at least one of what may be many answers.
Feed the piggy.
With high unemployment, people scrapping for even low-paying jobs, high gas prices and economic uncertainty, people just don’t have the money to save any more. They’re not feeding their piggy bank.
“We’re not even able to do the most basic act of money management,” complains one Midwestern mother of two. “Much less teach it to our children.”
A man in his thirties complains, “I went back to school to get a better paying job. Now I have a huge school debt to pay off—and the job that used to pay $65,000 is now paying only $35,000.”
According to a University of Michigan study, more households feel they are in a financially worse situation now than they were a year ago as a result of income declines. Another report finds that half of all families expect lower living standards in 2012.
Even aspiring young persons find that whereas a better education used to mean a better job, some young people are finding themselves more behind than ahead.
“I am educated beyond my means,” laments one college grad with a new Masters degree. “I had a small house filled with lots of things before I went back to school,” he says. “Now I have this huge debt and I’m just scraping by.”
On top of short-changed aspirations, citizens feel frustrated by the banks themselves. And their frustrations are not just confined to the Federal bailout or theoretical constructs like bonus packages and golden parachutes. They are much more personal and practical. Like service fees for using what they feel is their own money.
“I give them [banks] my money, and then they charge me for using it,” exclaims a union worker. “I want to feel the warm and fuzzies.”
A group of average middle-class well-employed citizens sit around a table. “I’m very inspired about the Wall Street occupants,” one of them blurts. “I think it’s inspiring.”
“It’s about time,” exclaims another.
“I’ve simplified everything,” remarks a middle-aged woman. “Reduced spending. Reduced options. No more credit cards. We’re not going to take that trip to Disney until we can pay cash!”
Even as we crawl out of a recession, people who still have jobs feel they’re working at their job and the job of the person who used to sit next to them. (Studies show that Americans’ weekly hours worked have increased about 20% in the last 30 years, contributing to making people more harried and time pressured.) Real advancement (that is, a new title with a pay increase) is often slow in coming. In the end, it seems not only that the jobs aren’t out there like they used to be, but with the housing market in many cities devalued or under water, we can only wonder if the slow build to wealth through good job, house on the cul-de-sac, and modest debt (a.k.a. The American Dream), if our “Land Of Opportunity” concept is a sugar cube dissolving under a steady drizzle of acid rain.
“I don’t have faith in the banking system, or in the government anymore,” declares a frustrated middle-class woman who works as a flight attendant. “I believe we’re coming to a time when we will all have to fend for ourselves.”
What is becoming clear is that while OWS may appear fringe and may not completely represent 99% of the American public, they do represent some
very, very mainstream frustrations. And they have codified it in a concept as single-minded as any Republican platform. More and more, they seem to be acting out the frustrations and dissatisfactions of a widespread public. And, in that sense (no matter how exaggerated their math), they are the 99%.
The underpinning of the American fabric has always been a vision of prosperity—whether real or imagined. Whether launching a Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, or a HOPE campaign, we have always felt better about ourselves when we have been propelled toward a distant mythic horizon line. The notion of success lurking right around the corner is what keeps our colleges full, talent continuing to immigrate into our country, and a steadfast work ethic.
The harsh and growing realities of trillion-dollar debt, high unemployment, devalued careers—rendered on an aging baby boomer generation ready to retire and an aspiring generation of college graduates—makes for disrupted ideology and soured prospects on both ends of the rainbow.
As it turns out, not feeding the piggy does not bode well for any society, and rarely has. It pays heed to remind ourselves that some of the civil demonstrations that ignited around the world in 2011 became bonfires of discontent.
Those who mockingly suggest that the OWS is fringe, or somehow laughable should remind themselves that the tattered tent cities have spoken something from the gut of Americana that rubber bullets and police squads in riot gear cannot quell: a bold idea.