I recently held a mediation between two young parents. Although the mediation topic was parenting time, the two kept veering into arguments about money: jobs, housing, child support. I let it go on for a little while, then held up my hand to stop the rants. When they were both quiet, I made some observations.
"You [indicating one] are struggling to find work. You [looking at the other] just had to move home because you couldn't afford the rent when your roommate moved out. I'm not saying the financial issues aren't important, but we are here today to talk about your child. There's a recession going on. You could be the faces of it."
They are the 99%.
Earlier this week was our legal clinic. We sailed past our all time record of 214 clients (set last year) and finished November at 239, knowing we will top 250 this year. That statistic is both incredible (as a visible benchmark to the skills, passion, and dedication of our volunteers) and absolutely heartbreaking (as a visible benchmark of what the Great Recession has done to our community).
Our legal clinic clients are the 99%.
Earlier tonight I sat down and figured out where the next paycheck (which I get tomorrow) goes. I net $575 every two weeks. After the bills still owing this month, after my share of the groceries ($100 per month or $50 per check), I have $42 left. $42! I told Amy I am buying her an early Christmas present tomorrow. She desperately needs a humidifier for her bedroom because of her severe asthma. So unless I find a decent one at Goodwill, it will be a $30 basic one at Wal-Mart, so that leaves me…hmmn…$12 for two weeks. Now, I have $30 in my pocket (a rare occurrence made possible only because of a recent repayment of a gasoline loan), so I am, in fact, feeling plush with $42 at hand.
I am the 99%. And I am one of the blessedly lucky ones, given that I have food, shelter, medical insurance, and a safe community to live in, not to mention an amazingly wonderful husband who lives in similarly straitened conditions and makes the absolute best of it. We are both lucky, and we are both part of the 99%.
The phrase "we are the 99%" refers to the reality that 1% of our population controls almost a quarter of all of the income generated in this country. In short, they control this country. There's a whole lot of talk going on right now about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is closely aligned with the "we are the 99%" discussion. For me, the issue is whether we continue to pretend everything is "all right" where so much wealth and power is amassed in the hands of so few people.
It's not all right. Hunger, homelessness, foreclosures, lack of medical care, poor public education systems, a crumbling infrastructure, falling behind technologically, and all the other rampant accoutrements of this imbalance are not acceptable. Not to me and not to lots of others. Even some of those who make up that 1% are starting to speak out about the dangers the wealth inequities pose to our nation.
And while I am still standing on my soapbox, let me add that I firmly believe the First Amendment is in danger of being bludgeoned as mayors move to stop the Occupy movement. The last time I checked, We the People, regardless of our socio-economic credentials, have the right to free speech and the right to assemble peacefully. Our press has the right to freedom as well, which means allowing them to cover the whole story on both sides, as opposed to cordoning them off during the police sweep of Zuccotti Park. I have no problem with arresting occupiers when they become violent. I have a huge problem with directing law enforcement to silence them and the press simultaneously because the protests are inconvenient or embarrassing.
At wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, people of all ages and all backgrounds tell their stories. I haven't put mine up, but every day I am more and more tempted. I admire these people. It takes courage to say in a very public forum "I am broke." Or "I am sick." Or "No matter how hard I work I am still behind." It takes courage to say "this is wrong."
There is huge power in storytelling and I suspect those who post their story or join a protest realize that truth more and more each day. As Barry Lopez said, "sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive." We need these stories to know we are not alone. We need these stories to stay alive.
As time and the economy wear on, I am increasingly radicalized, which is not my usual political mode. My usual political mode is sort of a middle of the road, let me concentrate on the local issues stance. I can no longer pretend the national issues have not warped our local issues out of kilter. There is no positive way to spin the Great Recession. Whether it is the school levy that failed in my stepdaughter's district or the recent attempt in Ohio to destroy police, firefighters, and teachers unions (beaten back at the polls overwhelmingly), or the clients waiting patiently at the legal clinic every month, my local community has been turned upside down.
2100 years ago, Hillel the Elder wrote "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, then what am I? And if not now, when?"
The time is now.