Occupy Wall Street (and other “Occupy” movements across the country) is bringing into sharp focus the vast wealth disparities in the U.S. and the impact the economic crisis is having on millions of Americans. The cry “We are the 99 percent” is meant to drive home the reality that just one percent of Americans own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even more startling is that 15 percent, more than 46 million Americans, live in poverty according to the latest census. The number of people living in poverty is at a 75-year high; one in seven Americans rely on food stamps and almost a quarter of our children live in poverty.
As alarming as these figures are, there is no significant national conversation about how to fix the poverty crisis in the U.S. In fact, over the past five years local, state, and the federal government have slashed funding for programs that lift people out of poverty, and neither political party has announced a plan to assist those most in need.
That’s where Occupy Wall Street comes in. In some ways, Occupy Wall Street can be seen as a fight between those who should have – recent graduates and the educated middle class – and those who do have – bankers, CEOs and those who comprise the one percent. But the movement also addresses the issues that affect the 15 percent who live in poverty, and it has become a powerful means to bring attention to the importance of safety net programs. Nowhere is this clearer than on the Occupy the Board Room website, where over 6,000 people have written letters to Wall Street, many with heart-wrenching stories about not being able to retire, losing their homes, or being ill and unable to work― all people who are in need of human services.
Occupy Wall Street supports the extension of the personal income tax surcharge on wealthy New Yorkers, which could generate $5 billion in revenue, as well as a national plan to increase taxes on the wealthiest so that they pay an effective tax rate equal to other income levels. This revenue could help save vital programs such as senior centers, supportive housing, afterschool programs, and employment and training. Occupy Wall Street also proposes a number of regulations and revenue generating ideas that will bring in much-needed funds for human services programs. More importantly, the movement has begun the national dialogue about income inequality, what it means for the average American, and the need for changes. As Barbara Ehrenreich recently noted, the Occupiers’ own experiences have made them acutely more aware of the struggles of the homeless and the criminalization of the activities of those without anywhere else to go.
The 15 percent is the population most in need of assistance and the group most disenfranchised in the current national dialogue. They are the single mothers who have lost their child care, the elderly who are not getting home delivered meals, and the formerly homeless who have lost their housing subsidies and find themselves back on the street. People depend on human services to make ends meet and build a better life for themselves.
The discussion of income inequality is not only at the heart of why human services exist but can also be the basis for a solution. Adequately funding not only for safety net programs such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but programs that lift people up and out of poverty is essential for creating a fair economy. Occupy Wall Street should continue to push for revenue solutions and incorporate the need for human services into their demands. The moment is ripe for a discussion about the struggles of Americans in poverty, the lack of resources for people in need, and the crushing budget and regulatory decisions that make it harder for nonprofits to help those in need. Human services providers and clients can stand with the Occupiers to make their voices heard, not only as the 15 percent, but as the 99 percent.
Contributed by Michelle Jackson of the Human Services Council of NYC