Saturday, October 22, 2011

We Are the 99 Percent

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

These are stark and disturbing claims, are they not? The above is the summary statement on the home page of the "We Are The 99 Percent" website, a blog where supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement can post their stories of worry, deprivation, and suffering at the hands of the wealthiest 1 percent of the American population–the 1 percent who own and manage some of the world's largest corporations.

A tale of two Americas

I confess that I have not been following the protests closely. But the protesters' signs are big, and their complaints are loud, so it would be hard to miss their point: Corporate moguls are selfish moneygrubbers who couldn't care less about the little guy. They would rather line their own pockets at the expense of the other 99 percent of Americans than consider the economic hardships the rest of us are enduring. And while we dig ourselves deeper into private debts, they cruise carelessly above us in their private jets. Somebody (Congress, are you listening?) had better make them give back some of what they've taken from all of us.

By now, of course, we've seen plenty of opposing commentary highlighting the benefits these corporations bestow upon us Americans, and I know that I myself have enjoyed many of the goods and services that they provide. But let's grant, just for the sake of argument, that these corporate billionaires really are nothing but heartless financial dictators who would rather starve a child than lose a dollar. Let's say that they truly do care more about the bottom line than about the bread line. Let's grant, in other words, that the ugly portrait that the protesters have painted of these Wall Street Scrooges is perfectly accurate. It's not a pretty picture, is it? Wall Street has some serious penance to pay.

But now, just for a minute, let's shift our focus away from those bloodsucking CEO's and back on the protesters themselves. They are the 99 percent. Their signs say so. And they have been painting a portrait not only of Wall Street but also of themselves. You can see it on their website. You can read it in the quote up above. The contrast couldn't be starker: The 99 percent are suffering. They have no rights. They are, to put in their words, getting nothing.

Nothing. Let's meditate on that.

How impoverished, exactly, are 99 percent of the American people? How accurate is the self portrait these protesters have been painting? What if, for the sake of perspective, we took away their paintbrush and instead handed these 99 percent a mirror? What, I had to wonder, does it look like to get nothing? What does suffering look like in the US of A? What does it mean to have no rights? Well, I've got eyeballs, and so, I hope do you. So pull up on Google any Associated Press photo of the Wall Street Protesters and tell me what you see.

Living with nothing

What I see over and over again is a gathering of apparently clean, healthy, well dressed, well fed individuals carrying cell phones and digital cameras and being respectfully allowed to take over city streets to voice their opinions—even in spite of their violation of minor laws about the acceptable use of public spaces.

What I do not see are swollen, malnourished bellies. I see no open sores or untreated diseases. I see no dirty rags or disintigrating shoes. I see no one being beaten or shot or arrested merely for voicing their opposition to the status quo. Nor am I seeing that sort of thing on the streets where I live—or on any American street, for that matter. So, while appearances can be deceiving, just on the face of it the claims of the 99 percent seem suspect.

That's not to say that nobody is suffering, that nobody is underfed, that nobody is being crushed by corporate greed. That's not to say that some Wall Street corporations haven't taken merciless advantage of some of us American citizens. I do believe that more and more people in our country have been struggling to make ends meet in recent years. I might even count myself among them.

I myself have known well enough what it's like to be uninsured, to go without certain luxuries, to live "paycheck to paycheck." Our family spent several years in which my own kids were eligible for Medicaid. Just this past year we lost some of our health coverage due to the economic downturn, and even now our family fits squarely within the definition of "low income" according to federal guidelines for a family of seven. I am the 99 percent, I guess. So it's not that I think these people are completely delusional when they say that times are tough. But the question is, tough compared to what? 

I have no doubt that among the Wall Street protesters there are individuals with legitimate grievances. But do they represent the 99 percent? To ask it another way, for every 100 people in these United States, are 99 being robbed and cheated and trampled upon by Wall Street? I found that hard to believe, so I decided to do a quick search of the internet to find some reliable statistics that might show what life among the 99 percent is actually like during these dark financial times.

A better summary?

Don't get me wrong. I understand the rhetorical power of hyperbole, but is our plight truly as bad as the "We Are the 99 Percent" crowd describes—that 99 percent of Americans are, in essence, homeless, sick, starving, poisoned, unemployed, or "working long hours for little pay and no rights" and are "getting nothing"?

Exaggerated claims like these are, in part, what prompted the government of North Korea, of all places, to issue official public statements claiming that these dire conditions in the United States now prove that capitalism has failed us. Would you, the 99 percent, prefer to emmigrate to North Korea, that great land of economic equality, in order to enjoy the wealth and freedom that it has to offer? Would you trade your American poverty for their prosperity? Yeah, me neither. 

I'm not saying that we couldn't do better. I'm not saying that Wall Street is guiltless or that poverty—even relative poverty—should be ignored. What I am saying is that, before we decide to condemn greed, we might want to take a look in the mirror; before we march through the streets lamenting our poverty, we might first do well to learn what poverty actually looks like in this country. Our "necessities" look surprisingly like luxuries to most of the world's population.

If we compared our poorest citizens to the wealthiest one percent of the rest of the world, I suspect that we might be astonished by the resemblance.

As most of us know, legitimate statistics can be used, and routinely are used, to cloud the truth. So I fully realize that the following percentages are unlikely to paint a completely accurate portrait of American life. What I do hope to prove, however, is that these statistics bear very little resemblance to the portrait painted on the We Are the 99 Percent website.

If nothing else, I hope that after reading the statistics below the response that we come away with is gratitude. We Americans, we 99 percent, have been given far much more than we realize. Thanksgiving is coming up. Allow me to help you get ready:

According the US Department of Energy (2005), of all Americans at poverty level or below,
99.7% have a refrigerator
97.9% have a TV
95.2% have a stove and oven
81.7% have a microwave
74.7% have air conditioning (Really? I am now slightly envious of 74% of poor Americans.)
72.3% have one or more VCRs
66.8% have more than one TV
64.9% have cable or satellite TV (!) 
64.8% have at least one DVD player
63.9% have a clothes washer
53.1% have a clothes dryer
54.5% have a cell phone
51.7% have both a VCR and DVD player
38.2% have a personal computer
29.3% have a video game console
29.3% have internet service
28.4% have a computer printer
24.2% have more than one DVD player
22.7% have a separate freezer
17.9% have a big screen TV
(I should add that these percentages are even higher among poor families with children.)

According to the USDA,
85.5 percent (101.5 million) of U.S. households were food secure throughout 2010.
Food secure—These households had access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.

According to National Geographic,
Americans on average have the largest homes of the 17 countries surveyed.
97% have hot running water
94% have a reliable source of heat
82% have air conditioning
85% regularly eat chicken
79% regularly eat beef
79% of Americans drive cars alone (So that's why the carpool lane is always empty during rush hour!)
67% have a dishwasher
57% have 3 or more TVs
48% have their own washer and dryer
19% have 3 or more cars per household.
16% of American homes have 10 or more rooms.

According to Pew Research:
96% of 14- to 29-year-olds own a cell phone
85% of all American adults now own a mobile phone
76% of Americans own either a desktop or laptop computer
47% own an dedicated MP3 player such as an iPod or Zune
42% of Americans own a video game console
And lastly, according to the CIA World Fact Book,
the current average life expectancy in this country is 78.3 years, compared to a global average of 67.2 years. (Throughout much of Africa, you would be doing extraordinarily well to reach age 50.)

After looking at what the majority of us really do have, I think we would do well to rewrite the summary found at the beginning of this post. If we are being honest, most of us could sign our names to something more like this:
We are the 99 percent. We drive our own cars. We have free K-12 education. We watch TV. We play games on our cell phones. We take hot showers regularly and turn on the AC in the summertime. We eat meat several times a week. We wear new clothes and have machines to wash them for us. We live long and prosper. We are the 99 percent. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

That Is Why It Is Called the "Present"

The day before my 33rd birthday I nearly died.

Yesterday morning was nothing remarkable. I had made a few loose plans to do laundry and read books with the kids. I had lunches to pack and errands to run and chores to do. I was preoccupied with a collection of quotidian details as I was driving home from my sons' school where I'd been helping with reading groups.

Just as I was starting to cross the highway to turn left at a green light, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a car flying like a bullet toward the intersection and showing no signs of slowing down.

I slammed on my brakes and lurched to a halt. My front wheels had already advanced half-way into the crosswalk the moment the speeding silver sedan shot through the red light. It was gone before I had gathered enough wits about me to honk my horn or read license plate numbers. With the sound of my heart swooshing rapidly somewhere behind my ears, I rolled forward again, trying not to let my knee shake as my foot pressed the gas pedal. I turned left, catching the eye of one of the drivers who had stopped at the red light. Her mouth was hanging open, and she raised her hands and shook her head in utter disbelief.

Death had just looked me in eyeballs, and my eyeballs were now open very, very wide. My vision, for that moment, was as sharp as shattered glass: My time is decidedly not in my hands.

Had I left the school just a split second earlier, had I proceeded from the stop sign up the hill just a moment sooner, had I driven just a hair over the speed limit on my way down that hill, I might have spent this day not enjoying birthday hugs from my children or lunch with my grandmother or a dinner out with my husband and some good friends but in a hospital bed or, worse, in a morgue.

Ironically, it's brush a death that may revive a love of life in all is mundane details. After that near escape, the fall leaves look a little brighter, the sky a little bluer, the laundry a little softer, my breath a little warmer, my family a little dearer. Life is good.

That "every day is a gift" may have been reduced to a greeting card platitude, but it's a truth nonetheless. Today I feel acutely that the mere fact of a beating heart is the gift of a lifetime.

Today I celebrate the day I was born. Today I celebrate that first day that life was given to me. But today I will also celebrate the other 12,044 days when that precious life was given to me again and again. Today is my birthday. Today I am alive. It is a very happy birthday indeed.

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