Occupy Wall Street and Poverty: Is There A Connection?

I’m not big on the idea of redistributing income or wealth. And when folks start talking these days about class warfare, I’m not sure exactly what side I’m supposed to be on. Maybe I need to keep two pitchforks handy in the garage.

I also grew up in an era when the presumption was that if you worked hard you had a good shot at being successful and at least achieving a middle class lifestyle. I know realistically that never applied to everyone in this country. But I wonder these days if even the majority believe it is true?

My guess is no. And that’s why the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations — beyond the fact that they are great made-for-TV events — resonate with many, young and old, liberal and conservative.

The reason? Like it or not, there is a growing problem in this country: Income distribution is moving to the high and low ends, with the middle getting squeezed to the bottom. And young people, even those with college degrees, are getting left beyond by a political and economic system that appears right now to dismiss the issue that most are concerned about: jobs.

Here’s from a story in September on CNN Money online, “Poverty rate rises as incomes decline“:

Amid a still struggling economy, more people in America fell below the poverty line last year, according to new census data released Tuesday.

The nation’s poverty rate rose to 15.1% in 2010, its highest level since 1993. In 2009, 14.3% of people in America were living in poverty.

“The results are not surprising given the economy,” said Paul Osterman, author of “Good Jobs America,” and a labor economist at MIT. “You would expect with so many people unemployed, the poverty rate would go up. It’s just another sign of what a difficult time this is for so many people.”

About 46.2 million people are now considered in poverty, 2.6 million more than last year.

The government defines the poverty line as income of $22,314 a year for a family of four and $11,139 for an individual. The Office of Management and Budget updates the poverty line each year to account for inflation.

Middle-class wealth falls: For middle-class families, income fell in 2010. The median household income was $49,445, down slightly from $49,777 the year before.

Median income has changed very little over the last 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the middle-income family only earned 11% more in 2010 than they did in 1980, while the richest 5% in America saw their incomes surge 42%.

“Over that period of time, it’s not that the American economy has necessarily performed badly,” Osterman said. “As a country we’re richer over that period, but there’s been this real shift in where the income has gone, and it’s to the top.”

So as much as I hate to admit it, I guess I find myself coming down this morning on the side of Eugene Robinson, the always-left-leaning WaPo pundit. He opines in “Occupy Wall Street: A timely call for justice“:

Occupy Wall Street and its kindred protests around the country are inept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic. God, I love ’em.

I love every little thing about these gloriously amateurish sit-ins. I love that they are spontaneous, leaderless and open-ended. I love that the protesters refuse to issue specific demands beyond a forceful call for economic justice. I also love that in Chicago — uniquely, thus far — demonstrators have ignored the rule about vagueness and are being ultra-specific about their goals. I love that there are no rules, just tendencies.

And more:

“Economic justice” may mean different things to different people, but it’s not an empty phrase. It captures the sense that somehow, when we weren’t looking, the concept of fairness was deleted from our economic system — and our political lexicon. Economic injustice became the norm.

Revolutionary advances in technology and globalization are the forces most responsible for the hollowing-out of the American economy. But our policymakers responded in ways that tended to accentuate, rather than ameliorate, the most damaging effects of these worldwide trends.

The result is clear: a nation where the rich have become the mega-rich while the middle class has steadily lost ground, where unemployment is stuck at levels once considered unbearable, and where our political system is too dysfunctional to take the kind of bold action that would make a real difference. Eventually, the economy will limp out of this slump, and things will seem better. Fundamentally, however, nothing will have changed.

Ah, pitchforks anyone?

 

 

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