Ever since 1999, Americans have witnessed a decline in median incomes. In fact, Americans are watching the gradual disappearance of the middle class. With the recent housing bubble, many working families had been able to purchase a home. Credit was expanded. Loans were more easily obtained. It seemed that middle-class was actually expanding. But it was not.
With the credit crisis in 2007, there was an increase in foreclosures. Rampant misrepresentation in loan underwriting made the situation worse. Working-class families and middle-class households that had been living beyond their means lost their homes. Their real economic situation became evident. As a feature editor of the Atlantic Magazine remarked, the “fig leaf has [been] blown away... and the recession has pressed hard on the broad center of American society” (Don Peck, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” in Atlantic Magazine, September 2011).
The pressure that many are feeling is now erupting in The Occupy Wall Street protests. The protesters are putting the spotlight on the economy. The movement may not be organized. It may include many disparate voices. But the chorus of protests points to the growing disparity in wealth in America.
The Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17, 2011 in New York’s financial district. Hundreds of protesters positioned themselves in Zuccotti Park, in Lower Manhattan. They made Wall Street the target of their protests for its undue influence on politicians. At a time when there is growing dissatisfaction with politicians, the protesters have made more public the issue of corporate influence on politics through campaign donations to Democrats and Republicans. The protests are spreading around the country. New York; Washington D.C.; Boston; Mobile, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida; and, Portland, Oregon: from north to south, east to west, the movement has gained momentum.
These protests are also spreading around the world. On October 15, 2011, 5,000 protesters gathered in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. Some 3,000 occupied the square near the London Stock Exchange. From New Zealand to Taiwan, people worldwide staged more than 950 demonstrations in over 80 countries, responding to protesters in New York calling for support.
Different languages, different particular issues and different needs are prompting people to unite in a chorus of protest against greed and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. The hundreds of thousands of Americans facing artificially inflated commodity prices, a shrinking job market, corporate greed and the influence of money on government are not alone. The social and economic inequality of millions has now found a voice.
When the civil rights movement first began, there was no way to predict its eventual outcome. Peaceful protests do have their place. They help us focus on the issues and energize us to find a solution to the challenges that are causing social unrest. With people in so many countries not finding jobs, with family incomes losing buying power, with many people migrating to find a better future only to face even greater hardships in their new homes, there is a need for a reconstruction of priorities in our economic and financial life as a nation, indeed, as a world community.
The problem arises when dividend returns take precedence over ethical and social responsibility. This problem cannot be solved merely by producing more material goods. It cannot be solved by the radical redistribution of wealth by the government. Nor is violence the right solution.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for the logic of the market to be applied to the service of the common good. God has placed enough in this world for all his children. Greed and the desire for power are the deepest causes of poverty and social inequality. Material goods are not the problem. Free-market capitalism is not the problem. Evil resides in human hearts that are cut off from others.
Governments need to attend to the dignity of the individual, the right of citizens to earn a living and the good of the entire society. But none of this will happen unless individuals themselves who make decisions and those who seek to improve their own well-being see themselves as truly connected with others, especially the poor. The Occupy Wall Street movement now spreading across national borders is a cry for more than money.