The real 99 percent

My first encounter with the Occupy Movement was through a spoof. A friend tagged me and some other bibliophiles in a photo of a luxurious library. Among the leather-bound books sat a series of makeshift tents, blankets and quilts strewn across the bookshelves and rocking chairs. Below the picture, my friend left the following caption:

Occupy the library! Doesn’t this look like fun?

I had known about the Occupy movement, heard about its protesters clogging the intersections and parks of New York and Seattle, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. This is strange, considering that the demographic of demonstrators and I both share one of the movement’s primary contentions: the weight of student loan debt, which, in an economy like this, is crippling, forcing many to choose between bankruptcy and mortgage payments, medical expenses and groceries.

I suppose my disinterest comes from perspective. Although I am technically part of the 99%, I know what my student loans really bought me: freedom. My school loans were the only thing that could get me through college, and the choice between going to college and living with my dysfunctional family was an easy one.

The pulse of the Occupy movement, however, is that for most Americans, going into debt is more necessity than feels fair or just. People are compelled to live in debt because the economic systems that shape our institutions - our colleges, our hospitals, our banks - work with such high operating costs that you can’t not go into debt for a degree, a house, a medical procedure.

And the gap between who is rich and who is not, between the 1% and the rest of us, is so huge that most of us can’t even see it. The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world where there is such a sharp contrast between who is wealthy and who is not, who holds prosperity and who scrapes to get by.

The Occupy movement believes that the have-nots, which are most of us, are the silent majority. That we labor beneath a system that makes debt inevitable, that drives us to a working poverty.

But what I wonder about, as I try to understand the situation, is how our poverty compares with the real 99% - the rest of the world, where at least 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I wonder how my student loan debt, which puts me in a particularly tight financial situation, compares to the lack of financial mobility that Kenyan farmers or Guatemalan mothers suffer.

I wonder how the face of my poverty compares to the faces of those who, on a global scale, go largely unnoticed.

My goal is not to diminish the situation to which the Occupy protesters speak. And I understand that, in a way, it is all connected - the Occupy movement has spread worldwide, and to know that people in Egypt and Grand Rapids, Mich., are protesting against wealth inequality and unfair debt is hopeful news.

But I wonder if my protesting should extend to the real silent majority. I wonder if we should form Occupy movements, not just for ourselves, but for the global poor, the famine sufferers, the children born with AIDS.

I wonder: should we be staging sit-ins in support of programs such as Feed the Future, a global initiative to fight malnutrition? Should we be occupying our streets not just for ourselves, but for those whose lives are marked by global economics in much more severe ways than ours?

Should we, at the least, be working just as hard for the economic well-being of others, as we focus on our own? Or will our protests just become more fodder for pop-culture jokes, while the unseen 99% continues to struggle?

(Photo courtesy of Brian Sims/Wikimedia Commons.)

Allison Backous teaches English at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is also the creative writing editor for The Other Journal.

Comments (15)

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Apart from questions of assumptions about poverty and the cures for it that are unlikely to find significant agreement, the basic premise of this article is an important one, as it challenges us to broaden our perspective beyond our own personal, local, regional, or national self-interest. It raises the critical question, “Who is my neighbor in a globalized world?” The answer has significant implications for policy making. 

In a recent article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect,” Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow write in the context of wealth redistribution, “a lower-middle-class worker by Massachusetts standards may be a net beneficiary of income redistribution at the Commonwealth definition of society but is likely to be a net contributor at the national definition. They most certainly would lose the vast majority of their income if the world were used as the
definition of society.”

So asking who the 1% is on the global scale is important. It turns out that it is most Americans.

http://www.acton.org/pub/journ...
Thanks for this, Allison.  I love your perspective.  There is no one answer, is there?  Not being a huge activist, I would prefer for our family to live in a way that frees up our income to give what we can.  But I have friends who are AMAZING activists that are speaking to Congress and writing books.  Perhaps the answer is a combination of both.
I would like to challenge the occupy protesters who went out and bought camping gear, sleeping bags and tents etc just to participate in the protest to now put them to good use and find a homeless person, a shelter or fire hall that serves the people that have no choice but to occupy the streets. Put your gear to good use. Don't store it in your garage or closet with 99% of the stuff you will never use again.

I had a friend in University who gave me advice on food. One year she was down to almost nothing. She was living on chocolate bars. I thought it was crazy until she showed me the calories per penny math. Seriously... she found a discount store and bought the highest calorie, peanut and nougat chocolate she could find. It made sense. So when I started doing better and was living near an area with a lot of homeless people I would regularly buy chocolate bars for them on cold nights as I was heading to the subway. 

I know there is a lot of talk and focus on the top 1% and a lot of "Poor me" talk about the 99% which I'm technically in but tough I don't feel hard done by. I still see a bottom 1% on our streets that desperately need our help and elsewhere in the world perhaps there are places even our street people might be considered fortunate. I can do something about the bottom 1% even if it is just giving them a chocolate bar or a hot coffee so they don't lose their warm spot in the corner.
Will we ever have enough? Those with less always hate those with more. It is just human nature. The 99% in the fat middle of the bell curve hate the tiny fraction (1%) at the end of the bell curve. That kind of class hatred led the Pol Pot regime to kill any doctor or professional. That impulse evolved into, “persecute any with glasses” (the mere appearance of professionalism). It does not matter how much children have, their concern is that some have more. “Its not fair.” Someone once said the poor in America live better than the kings of Europe during the middle ages. Clean water, electricity, a warm house or apartment, food, transportation, public education, a phone, a television, government healthcare. The classes in the middle ages were frozen in place, there was no path from serfdom to the middle class, no public education or college. I am in debt, I struggle, the value of my home is currently less than the amount owed. But this is not a zero sum game and I bear no ill will to the tiny fraction at the top, I would rather focus on restoring the economy back to health for ALL than punishing the 1%. There are 12 million non-documented immigrants in this country that have risked all to have a chance at joining the very bottom of the bell curve in America. I appreciate Allison's perspective and Jordan's insight.
The Occupy camps in numerous big cities are providing for the homeless in numerous ways. Before eviction, a number of them had medical tents set up that gave rudimentary health care to anyone and everyone in the area who needed it. The food available was communal and not restricted to merely Occupiers. Additionally, because of the actions of police during the eviction of many of the Occupy camps, those tents and equipment have been utterly destroyed - not calmly packed up and set in a garage.

I have a friend who is part of the administration team for  Occupy Nashville (contrary to media reports, there is actual organization at these things) and they have been making a sincere effort to help the homeless in their area as a part of their movement.
As I talk to Occupiers and read their stories, one thing becomes very apparent: the Occupy movement is really about haves vs have mores.  Look at their tents, look at their clothes, and look at their provisions then listen to their message.  There is a huge problem.  While there are some that are out there with nothing, there is a lot of money going into their tent cities.

As for curing poverty, the deception lies in the fact that poverty can't be cured.  Whoever has the smallest amount is the one in poverty.  Always - and a culture that tries to balance everything out equally will only see that everybody is in poverty.
We do a poor job of understanding poverty in this country.  Even our poorest are living in houses.  Granted, not always nice houses, but still - look at the poorest inner city places and then compare that to the poorest places on earth, and you'll discover that our poor do very well for themselves.  Even our poorest can make their way to a grocery store and buy enough calories for an entire family for a day on only a couple of dollars.  

In the end, the Occupy movement looks good on paper, in practice, it is an entirely different situation.
The 99% in the USA and the 99% worldwide have the same problem: They are being exploited and oppressed by the top 1% in the USA and in the global financial system, who hold more of the world's wealth than at any previous point in the known history of the human race.

Not one iota of actual, real anything was lost during the financial meltdown of 2008. No grain fields burned, no houses were destroyed, no factories were leveled. The resources of the planet were just the same in November 2008 as they were in July 2008. And yet, millions lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their security due to the complete dishonesty and moral bankruptcy of the top 1% in the global financial system—and the top 1% actually came out of the meltdown ahead of where they'd been before.

Let's be clear about this: We have the resources now to feed the world, to give everyone access to clean water and health care—but we're poisoned by an ideology that says that the absolute "right" of the top 1% to their "private property" trumps the welfare of 99% of the planet's population. 

The so-called "principle" that the wealth of the wealthy should remain inviolate prevents us from fairly and equitably distributing the world's material wealth and ensuring that every person on the planet has what he or she needs to survive.

That problem is the same whether the 99% we're talking about are 99% of Americans, or 99% of the human race. All 99.9% of us are the victims of those who have hoarded the resources God gave all of humanity just to themselves and built up ideological walls that say that it is better for children to starve to death than it is for the wealthy to be forced to give up one penny of their wealth.
Thank you for bringing attention to the fact that even the non-wealthy in North America are, by any reasonable standard, wealthy.

Perhaps I generalize, but, if Americans were to spend less on stuff they don't need, not only would they have more money, but living standards could be higher for those in poor countries as well. The resource-grab that contributes to impoverishing others far away could diminish, but we'd also have more wealth to contribute to alleviate poverty in the places where it persists.

Some people say that, if people stop buying junk, the economy will collapse. I say, if you stop buying junk, you can work fewer hours, so there could still be high employment numbers. Not to mention, when you buy something non-durable and it ends up in the trash, you are creating just that--trash--not wealth. Wealth does not come from destruction of natural resources.

Ultimately, though, true wealth is Godliness plus contentment.
And it's stories like this that help shape my perspective - I don't see the Occupy protestors as "whiners," but I do wonder about what that distribution of wealth looks like, primarily when it comes to the global poor. Is it fair to say that I carry the same burden as that giant 1 billion? Does that kind of solidarity do them justice? I'm glad for the care that seems to have grown out of the Occupy movement, particularly in the face of all the pepperspray incidents, and still keep asking these questions.

 

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