Occupy Wall Street has thrust the issue of extreme inequality into the spotlight. The movement has spread so quickly and alarmed politicians not because of its rather small encampments but because its message resonates. Most people know, or at least half-know, that our problem is growing inequality, and they also know that government is complicit in the financially driven capitalism that is in the driver’s seat. The slogan “We are the 99 percent” stresses our commonality and lays the basis for a movement ethic of democracy, inclusion and solidarity. This is a big and welcome step. After all, we need an ethic that goes beyond the incessant liberal (and union) talk of “the middle class.”
Still, the movement has to respond to the police sweeps of its encampments by becoming broader and more hard-hitting. It has to firmly include the vast number of people who have been marginalized by the rhetoric of American politics and by the realities of the American economy. In many places the homeless have joined the encampments. That is a beginning. But it’s not enough. To fully realize an ethic of inclusion, the poorest and most benighted Americans should become part of our protest movement. We need to increase their numbers at our demonstrations, and we need to undertake the protest actions that deal with their most urgent needs—including the attacks on the social safety net that hit them hardest.
To contemplate the possibility of a broad movement that embraces the tens of millions of the poorest Americans immediately raises the question of why the people who have been hurt the most by the trends of the past several decades have so far remained quiescent. I think the answer to that question is in the force of the blows levied on poorer people by our culture of insult, and the deliberate escalation of that insult over the past forty years. Of course, much about American life constitutes an insult to people who are poor, from religious doctrines that treat good fortune as a sign of heavenly favor and poverty as the reverse, to the insult implicit in the inability of people living on the edge to share in the obsessive shopping and consumption that constitute so much of our daily life. The politics of the past forty years has deeply aggravated the insult of poverty.
For a time in the 1960s, the upheaval in American politics caused by the rise of the black freedom movement softened the treatment of the poor by directing attention to what were called the “institutional” causes of poverty. Social scientists began to examine the roots of low wages and unemployment in labor markets, for example, or in patterns of educational or residential exclusion and discrimination. And political leaders called for new government interventions that would alleviate poverty by changing the practices of these institutions. Of course, any radical intervention in labor markets or schools or residential patterns promised to provoke fierce resistance, as experience soon showed. An easier way to intervene was by expanding safety net programs. The result was that in a few short years, from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, our programs for income support, housing assistance, nutritional supplementation and assistance to the aged and disabled all expanded. However, the moment of (limited) enlightenment did not last. The black freedom movement and the sister movements it inspired subsided, and once they did, the poor became the foil in the efforts of an increasingly determined Republican-business coalition to gain uncontested state power.
Some readers will remember the “Southern strategy” used by Republican presidential contenders in the ’60s and indeed until the notorious use of the Willie Horton advertisement during George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. The strategy took a leaf from Southern politics by naming the association of Democrats with blacks as the reason to vote Republican. Since this was national politics, not Southern politics, some discretion was demanded. Accordingly, blacks usually went unnamed, but everyone understood that the castigation of the Great Society, and of welfare, crime and unwed mothers, and of poverty itself, meant African-Americans.
In time, the frontal racist attack on African-Americans faded, but the attack on the poor and the programs that assisted them did not. It was too useful to the emerging agenda of the business-led right-wing coalition: lower and more regressive taxes, weaker unions, less regulation, cuts in the safety net and the effort to turn big hunks of the public sector into arenas for private profit-making.
To smooth the way, new think tanks, along with hordes of lobbyists and new political organizations, revived an ancient argument. The causes of poverty lay not with institutions but with the poor themselves, with their culture of poverty, their promiscuity, their shortsightedness, their criminality. And the safety net programs that eased their plight in fact indulged and worsened all these bad traits. They became “dependent.” As funding became available, a good many academics followed the new line on poverty with research projects that purported to show the correlation between government support and one or another pathology. The relentless condemnation of the poor and the programs that assisted them smoothed the way for drastic cuts in the safety net. In the ’90s, a Democratic president campaigned with the slogans “End welfare as we know it” and “Two years and off to work.”
The main audience for all this was, of course, the broad American public. But the poor were also an audience. Already shamed by the fact of their poverty in the midst of seeming affluence, they were assaulted and insulted relentlessly by political discourse for four decades. No matter the hardship, shame makes protest less likely.
But shame can also be overcome, sometimes easily and quickly because people harbor different and contradictory thoughts about themselves and their circumstances. Movements are often crucial vehicles of such transformations. This is, I think, an important and unrecognized point. We usually assume that people have ideas that explain their protests. Accordingly, the way to encourage protest is to try to change ideas. But my sense is that it is participation in the movement that transforms people, more than the other way round. In the mid-’60s, when the welfare rights movement was forming, the women who came together hated “the welfare,” but they were also deeply uncertain about themselves and their rights. Meetings would be called, perhaps to plan an action of some kind. But first the women who gathered had to talk things out. And what they wanted to talk about was why they had a right to welfare assistance at all. The gatherings and the movement of which they were a part helped them to figure that out. Movements make individual problems collective problems. They provide comradeship and support. And they show people not only that there is hope but that they themselves are the reason for hope.
Occupy Wall Street presents the possibility of a new and massive national protest movement capable of forcing a reversal of course, for the city and the nation. This could be one of those big turns in American political history, set in motion by indignant people who take to the streets or occupy the factories or the schools. And it will take an upheaval of historic dimensions to force the reigning financial and business interests and the politicians who kowtow to them to move in new directions, to cede a measure of democratic regulation of finance and business, to give in to policies that empower workers and their unions, to go along with policies that limit the corruption of electoral politics by big money and its propaganda and, not least, to restore and expand the safety net.
For this to happen, the movement has to grow, and it has to include in its ranks the people who have been scorned and abused by corporate domination of our politics. Not only would OWS gain strength from the participation of the poor; participation in a great movement dedicated to reducing extreme inequality would also transform the poor. Our society would benefit from that transformation. A proud and angry poor could help to remake America.
Also in This Forum
Betsy Reed: “Occupy the Safety Net” (Introduction)
Lizzy Ratner: “Food Stamps: The Safety Net That Deserves Its Name”
Kate Kahan and George Wentworth: “Unemployment Insurance Under the Knife”
Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich: “The Making of the American 99 Percent”
Diana Spatz: “The End of Welfare as I Knew It”
Pedro Noguera: “Stretching the School Safety Net”
Patrick Markee: “The Unfathomable Cuts in Housing Aid”
Sasha Abramsky: “Medicaid in Crisis”
Kai Wright: “Hard Knocks in the Bronx”