An Occupy protester rallies in Union Square, March 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A new study by sociologists at the City University of New York on the Occupy Wall Street movement recently captured the media’s attention, mostly due to the researchers reporting that more than a third of the people who participated in the NYC chapter of the movement came from households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more.
“Study shows that the Occupy Wall Street kids were ‘the children of the elite’. What a surprise,” a Telegraph columnist sighed. ”Many Occupy protesters well-off, white and educated, study says,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The Gothamist opted for a slightly more diplomatic headline: “Study: Occupy Movement Well-Off, Educated, But Still Stung By Bad Economy”.
Setting aside the fact that this was a damned if they do, damned if they don’t moment for Occupy—they’re either poor, dirty hippies or the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite, but never, ever Americans exercising their First Amendment rights—the narrative constructed by the media simply isn’t true.
Even one of the study’s co-authors takes issue with how the media is interpreting the study.
Professor Stephanie Luce emphasizes emphatically that the data represent household income—not individual income, an important distinction to keep in mind because the data skews higher than real income for Occupiers.
“The problem was we did not end up reporting on individual income. About a quarter of our respondents earned less than $15,000 a year, but since many of them were students, we weren’t sure if that would be misleading and if that would be a level of detail that would take a lot to go into describing those households,” says Luce.
“We ended up just reporting on household data because it seemed easiest to compare with New York City data. Now that all of the media is picking up on that one particular [detail], I am wishing that we had reported individual income too, and made that distinction clear.”
The study does attempt to be nuanced in its report of the Occupy movement in other areas, including the fact that nearly a third of the protesters had been laid off or lost a job. A similar number said they had more than $1,000 in credit card or student loan debt.
Another important under-reported detail is that the sampling of 700 people at a May Day rally in 2012 was an atypical Occupy event that attracted a diverse crowd, including many activists from labor groups (there is overlap between Occupy and labor, but the event also attracted individuals who were unaffiliated with Occupy).