Culture At Large

The real 99 percent

Allison Backous Troy

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.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Money, Economics, News & Politics, Social Trends, World, Justice, North America