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. 

14 comments:

Carissalayla said...

wowza, can I link this on my blog, please? email me at carissalayla@yahoo.com

THANK YOU Hannah, well said, indeed!

Naomi said...

So sad how ungrateful we are.

Anonymous said...

Please explain what is the point of this blog post.

Are you trying to say that people shouldn't exaggerate? If so, why is your final rewrite of the 99% exaggeration yet another exaggeration?

Based on your statistics your only valid "We are the 99 percent" statement would be:

We are the 99 percent. We have refrigerators. We are the 99 percent.

As for the ole "can't you people just be grateful for what you have" argument. Really? Would you tell a man who was beaten to be grateful, because someone else was beaten worse? Why is it okay to tell someone that feels exploited that they should just be grateful?

Linda French said...

Responding to Anonymous - everyone is exploited in some way; it's part of life, relatively harmless, and usually temporary or possible to move away from. And beating is not common; the analogy is drama-seeking.

It is not realistic to think you can always get what you want or helpful to act like a victim if you don't. What was listed in the final paragraph wasn't exaggerated at all. American poverty generally doesn't cause harm and can easily be temporary if the poor are willing to work to help themselves (reality shows that too often they don't know how to or don't want to); and it can be gotten out of if a person really wants to work to get out of it.

nersestavit said...

Thanks for this fantastic post, supported by data at that. It is amazing that the protesters are criticizing the 1% for their greed, but can't see how their own greed is driving this movement. Gratitude is powerful and seems to be lost in our society.

Anonymous said...

As a Republican, I understand your intention and appreciate your opinion. I live in New York City, earn over $150,000 per year (and not from Wall Street:), and my home is worth close to $1.5 million. It’s safe to say that I am enjoying the fat of the land.

However Hannah, from 2007-2009, our national debt went up by 25%, unemployment increased over 70%, home equity is down 35%, YET Wall Street profits increased over 720%. Does this sound okay to you? Is it okay for most Wall Street C.E.O.s to pay less income tax than their secretary who earns $70,000/year? Is it okay for the U.S. to spend over $1 Trillion in the Iraqi war yet, for the first time in the U.S., more than 25 percent of children under 6 years old now live in poverty?

Listen, I have many friends on Wall Street who are hard workers, have over $100K in student loans, and believe in the American dream. Generally speaking, I don’t think the protesters are against these individuals. They are voicing their outrage at C.E.O.s like Lloyd Blankfein, Steve Schwarzman, and David Teppers, to name a few, who are walking away from this recession unscathed, and possibly even richer than prior to 2007. Just a year ago, Teppers bought a Hamptons summer home for over $40 million!!!

Poverty, like wealth, is relative. Thank goodness your children and my children have food to eat, a school to attend, and decent health care. However, the 99% are protesting so that we don’t end up with “… swollen, malnourished bellies… open sores or untreated diseases…disintegrating shoes.”

Keep the faith.

Anonymous said...

Linda,

Wow! Your view of exploitation is "interesting". Let's look at exploitation Bernie Madoff exploited peoples greed and trust and now there are many people lost billions. Relatively harmless?
People sneak illegals into the country and put them in near slave labor conditions because they know that they won't go to the police. Relatively harmless? The porn industry, isn't it the poster child for exploitation?

First the last paragraph even based on the percentages presented for the people in poverty (rem:
99% drive our own cars, but the national average for car ownership is 92%.
99% have free K-12 education - More than 1% of us pay taxes that pay for K-12 education (By the way the DOE says that 82% of US school could "fail" under the No Child Left Behind"
99% of us watch TV - I'll give you this though.
99% play games on our cell phones, but only 83% of adults even have cell phones (only 35% of them have smart phones)
99% take hot showers regularly, but only 97% have hot water.
99% use the AC in the summertime, but only 82% have an AC
99% eat meat several times a week, but for chicken only 85% "regularly" eat chicken (it doesn't say several times a week) for beef it is less (79%)
99% wear new clothes - This seems to be pulled out of thin air
99% have washing machines, but only 48% have a washer and dryer so I doubt another 51% have a washer
99% live long and prosper, but life expectancy is growing faster for the top half of earners.

American Poverty is relatively harmless? See the 99% live long and prosper. The poor spend 4 times more time in hospitals than the rich.

The comment that some don't want to get out of poverty is non-starter; nobody wants to live in poverty. Their are people that exploit the systems that we have (rich and poor), but nobody wants to live in poverty.

As for the rest, you say yourself that some don't know how to get out of poverty, these are the people that many would probably call the working poor. These people may be working to the height of there abilities as much some would like to think that anyone can be a Buffett or Franklin.

Linda French said...

Relatively harmless is what the exploitation most people experience is. I wasn't talking about rare cases (compared to the population total) of forced slave labor or child porn; I was talking about the majority of people who complain about their lacks as though they shouldn't have to suffer or do without at all.

The percentages you listed of how many people have various things aren't enough lower to support an argument against the higher percentages that were listed in the original post.

If you don't think 51% of people have only a washer you don't get around much. Many people across the country who have yards still line-dry their clothes, some by choice.

And if you think that no poor want to be poor, you haven't been in much contact with the poor. This issue came up in the 80s when people felt sorry for the homeless and wanted to find them all homes only to find out that they didn't all want homes. Poor doesn't mean starving; you can be poor by government standards and live well. I did it. I raised four kids for years on less than the poverty level income and kept up with my bills, bought a run-down house and renovated it. I spent $50 a week on groceries for several years (I saved the receipts so I knew for sure that that was all I spent) and we ate well because I didn't buy convenience foods (or use coupons); we had one car, used, because that's all we needed and it was usually bought with cash (and we spent no more on repairs because, contrary to popular belief, old doesn't necessarily mean broken down). I made or fixed what I could, increasing my skills to save money; I bought used well-made furniture or clothes. These are things anyone can do if they want to. If they want to buy new and spend more, fine. But they shouldn't complain then if they run short of money or get behind in bills because they wanted to keep up with the Joneses.

The American dream isn't having a house with a closet big enough to be a bedroom, a two-car garage and stainless steel appliances in a nice neighborhood. It's being able to work and probably own your own home (small as it may be), have some extras, and to be able to afford to attend the yearly county fair or go to the beach.

Reality is that we will always have the poor with us (as Jesus said) because we will always have a portion of the population that doesn't care about being wealthy or even middle-class. We live simply and like it, even though, according to government guidelines, we're below the poverty level. We can be more financially solvent than the person who earns $100,000 a year and spends $150,000.

Hannah G said...

To the anonymous commenters, it's certainly true that my final paragraph is an exaggeration of the statistical facts. My point there was that if we're using the moniker "The 99 Percent" to simply mean "most of us", we need a statement that is is much nearer to the truth than the summary on that website. The majority of us, if not the statistical 99%, really are much better off than the protestors would have us believe.

As I said, I do understand the rhetorical power of hyperbole, but it seems to me that those claims are more than slight exaggeration; they appear, rather, to be a gross misrepresentation—a distortion of reality that is actually doing a dangerous disservice to the legitimate claims of those suffering genuine injustice. And those of us who care about the evils of poverty and injustice and exploitation should find it distressing when those terms are gradually drained of their meaning.

Having a tough time paying back your student loans is frustrating and stressful, yes. But it is not injustice. It is not exploitation. If we really do care—as I believe we should—about those suffering in slave-like situations, then we should be far more careful about the terms we use to portray our own situations.

I also tend to be a bit suspicious of those who claim to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed but have something to gain themselves by doing it. Poverty and corruption don't seem to disturb us nearly as much when we're the ones getting a nice piece of the tainted pie.

Additionally, I do believe that a lack of gratitude (among both the 1 percent and the 99 percent) is what underlies a lot of this country's current economic troubles. Anybody who has kids knows that gratitude does not come naturally to the human race. We have to be reminded over and over again to say thank you. But nobody has to teach us to cast sidelong glances. Nobody has to remind us to cry foul when some kid at the birthday party gets a bigger slice of cake than we do. No matter how much we have, we tell ourselves that we deserve more, and we're willing to use other people's money in order to get it.

Are we really occupying Wall Street because we're merely looking for an end to corporate corruption and oppressive working conditions? Or are we looking for somebody else to pay off our credit cards for us? It seems to me that both motivations are present within the OWS movement, but I'm afraid that there is not nearly enough of the former and far too much of the latter. Greed is no less a problem on my street than it is on Wall Street.

Linda French said...

Amen, Hannah.

jiagap said...

"Greed is no less a problem on my street than it is on Wall Street." well said, I will have to steal that one. It's ok to steal, right?

Great discussion. Honorable and kind.

jiagap said...

Anonymous said: "Is it okay for most Wall Street C.E.O.s to pay less income tax than their secretary who earns $70,000/year? "

I know this is a peripheral issue to the issue in the blog, but I hear this question often and think it needs to be addressed. Maybe people do not understand the way income tax works and maybe they are unaware of all the other taxes involved in corporations. It may be true that sometimes some CEOs pay less income tax in a given year than a secretary who earns $70K a year (I wish I earned $70K in a year!). But that is hardly the whole story.

Corporations pay income taxes on their adjusted net income - and if they are wise, they will work every loop hole and hire the best tax accountants to try to honestly pay as little as possible. If you use Turbo Tax or something like that for you personal income taxes you probably do the same thing - you go through all the options to find the most possible legal deductions. Corporations sometimes show a net profit and pay income taxes on that gain. But sometimes they show a net loss, and thus do not have an income tax liability for that year. But that is not the whole picture. Here is a list of several other taxes, and it is not exhaustive, that most corporations pay even in a recession when they are not making a corporate profit: Property taxes, personal property taxes, federal unemployment taxes and state unemployment taxes, workman's comp taxes, payroll taxes - social security and medicare, sales taxes, excise taxes, and numerous other little local taxes - these add up to a significant percentage of their operating budget. And along with paying all these other taxes, they must finance a staff to deal with compliance and auditing of all these various taxes by the various agencies who are responsible to collect these taxes.

This is NOT to justify anybody or any corporation. Only to point out the bigger picture. Hope it helps.

Daniel said...

Great post, Hannah! Thanks for the thoughts!
- Daniel

Signe said...

amen and amen!

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