Why the 99 Percent is Crying Out

Oct 5, 2011Bryce Covert

Occupy Wall Street is right to be angry. Americans are falling farther and farther behind.

The biggest controversy over Occupy Wall Street is about what they stand for. Are they a bunch of dirty hippies with no agenda? Do they really think they can change the entire system? Why won't they just put out a concrete list of demands and policy prescriptions?

While signs at the protests have many, many messages -- from BP to Iran to capital punishment -- the affiliated Tumblr, We Are the 99 Percent, exposes what's motivating people to get on the streets. With over 700 submissions at this point, Americans from all over have been writing down personal stories to explain their frustrations. While those protesting on Wall Street have grievances that are far ranging, those on the Tumblr are almost all sparked by a combination of a few common things: joblessness, debt, and low wages. They are the stories of those who can't make ends meet. These days, that covers a lot of us.

Here's a sampling just from the most recent page (my bold):

My mother (leader in her field of pathology, MA) is upside-down on her house. My father (multiple PhD's) lives in his car so that he can do what he loves for a living rather than be a slave to the system.

I am 45 years old. I was laid off twice in 18 months... I am "unemployable" because of layoffs. I have not worked since November 2008.

I am 27 years old with $100,000 in debt. I was laid off in 2009 and have been struggling ever since then. I have not made more than $10,000 a year since then.

My husband and I have $80k in student loan debt. I am in the process of being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a hard enough thing in and of itself. I also have over $30,000 in medical debt because of that... We own cheap cars, live frugally, have a roommate to help, and try hard to keep up... I work when I'm not too sick, and he works full time.We have a combined annual income of less than $40k annually.

I have an MS from a top state university- & $135k in student loans (& growing). I've lost 2 jobs in 3 months.

Lost my job in 2006. Sold my home and moved in with my 87-year-old mother.... Cancer survivor. Need medical care. Can't afford health insurance... TOO YOUNG TO RETIRE. Watching my retirement funds and savings shrink.

As a newer, less established member of the faculty I was out of work when my college cut classes. Over a year later and I still can't find work... Because of deferments my $41,000 loan has become $62,000.

Adjusted for inflation, a smaller American reality than that of my dad -- a civil servant who dropped out of college... My son is learning to speak Mandarin.

I am 29 years old. I have a Master's degree. I am $120,000+ in student loan/medical debt. In the past 18 months I: was diagnosed with cancer, lost 2 jobs, worked 70 hours/wk and unable to keep up. I get more calls from creditors than I do friends... I have $4 in my bank account and no job.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, and event alerts.

And I find this one perhaps the most emblematic of the average American's experience:

We live within our means, we own our cars, yet cannot accumulate much savings. We live responsibly, and consider ourselves "citizens" and not "consumers." We find it troubling that living simply can still accrue so much debt... We are one emergency away from financial ruin.

"Living simply can still accrue so much debt." That's been the American experience for years now. As Ezra Klein put it, the Tumblr is full of "small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it."

For those who are lucky enough to work, the money we take home has been either stagnating or decreasing, and it's getting worse in the aftermath of the recession. As reported by Bloomberg:

Take-home pay, adjusted for prices, fell 0.3 percent in August, the third decrease in five months, and personal income dropped for the first time in two years, the Commerce Department reported last week. The declines followed news from the Census Bureau that median household income in 2010 fell to $49,445, the lowest in more than a decade, and the poverty rate jumped to 15.1 percent, a 17-year high.

That figure, $49,445, isn't going to cut it. A recent report showed that a household with two working parents and two young children needs to earn $67,920 to meet basic needs without relying on public support. It only drops to $57,756 for a single parent with two young kids. Not to mention that rent, food, and health costs are rising. On top of this, 14 million Americans don't even have jobs. When we don't bring in enough money to pay for the basics, the next place we have to turn is debt. Our total revolving debt comes to $796.1 billion, with the average household carrying $14,743 in credit card debt. Household debt is currently 90 percent of GDP, up from 70 ten years ago. It's no wonder, then, that despite making some headway in paying down our debt loads, consumers are still struggling to do so.

And student debt is a whole other story. The total is on track to reach $1 trillion this year, more than our combined credit card debt. Alongside this surge is a rise in delinquencies post-recession. This is partly fueled by the government, schools, and hard-pressed parents pulling back on support. It is also certainly fueled by the dismal job market and graduates' unemployment rate -- which will have ramifications for their earning capacity for years to come.

I'm not surprised that people are at their wit's end over personal finances. I'm not surprised that they're blaming the banks that make money from keeping us in debt. I'm just surprised it took this long for the anger to find its voice.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor of New Deal 2.0.

Share This