Pillar 3: Who Are The 99%?

I am paying back $30,000 in student loans. He is still paying his student loans as well. I get $147 in food stamps a month, and between that and my paycheck, we do ok, but have no savings. However, we are 1 broken down car, 1 serious health issue or 1 missed paycheck from being totally fucked. (Tumblr Blog, “We Are The 99 Percent”; 2011, October 31)

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The purpose of this chapter, the third sub-study, will explore the personal biographies of Occupy Wall Street supporters, by examining a sample of personal testimonials taken from the Tumblr thread, “We Are The 99 Percent.” The thread, which gained nationwide popularity during the first few months of the Occupy protests, is a wealth of information about the personal experiences of those who associate with the 99% protest group. Each contribution is an account of personal and familial hardship, detailing the many obstacles and problems the average American inevitably encounters in pursuit of the “American Dream.” These posts, offered voluntarily by supporters, provide a window into the individual circumstances of those who feel they have been cheated by the current social and economic system, one that masquerades as equitable and fair on its exterior, but is really only caters to a small minority. The testimonials are stories of individual trials and tribulations brought on by severe financial limitations and heavy debt burdens. The outlook overall is extremely pessimistic; contributors express fear about what they perceive to be an unpredictable future; they know their current economic circumstances lack stability and security, and they fear that the future holds more of the same.

The performance of multiple close readings of the sample, combined with the collection of age and keyword data, allowed for the development of several “protestor profiles” that emerged from the text, discussed in the remainder of this third sub-study. Each profile is a portrait illustrating the common characteristics belonging to some of the more prominent subgroups of protestors evident in the sample. Exploring the personal biographies of protest supporters and participants satisfies the third pillar of the “fundamental triangle” linking individual troubles with the larger historical context and social issues addressed in Chapters 3 and 4. This chapter addresses two fundamental questions: who are the 99 Percent, and why do they support the Occupy Movement?

The Tumblr Sample

Posts began to appear in the Tumblr feed as early as August 23, 2011, weeks prior to the onset of protests in Lower Manhattan, and continued up until October, 2013. The first post is both a call to action, as well as a set of instructions for participation in the Tumblr thread, encouraging supporters of the Occupy Wall Street initiative to join the “99 Percent Project.” The post asks those who are “drowning in debt that never goes away,” those facing the possibility of eviction and homelessness, to “Make a sign. Write your circumstance at the top, no longer than a single sentence,” with a footer that reads, “I am the 99 Percent” and “Occupy Together.” Several examples of ideal circumstances are also provided, including, “I am a student with $25,000 in debt,” and “I need surgery and I’m more worried about the expense than my health.” The final instruction asks participants to take a picture of themselves holding the sign and submit it to the Tumblr feed. The post concludes with a definitive statement of purpose, outlining why demonstrating solidarity is important:

The 99 percent have been set against each other, fighting over the crumbs the 1 percent leaves behind. But we’re all struggling. We’re all fighting. It’s time we recognize our common struggles, our common cause. Be part of the 99 percent and let the 1 percent know you’re out.

 

Thankfully, many contributors went well beyond what the opening instructions called for, offering up detailed accounts several paragraphs in length. Also, many chose to waive a certain degree of anonymity by clearly including their face in the images of the handwritten signs.

The Tumblr feed contains a total of 231 individual webpages, each containing either 14 or 15 posts, dependent on individual post and image size. The selection of posts for examination was performed using both a coin and a random number generator,[1] with a parameter set to select a single digit between 1 and 15. I decided I would scroll through each of the 231 pages, selecting either one or two posts from each page based on the results of a coin flip. For each page, the coin was flipped once; “heads” for one post, “tails” for two. Once it was determined how many posts would be selected per page, the random number generator was used to determine exactly which posts would be extracted for the purposes of examination. Starting from the top of the webpage and descending, each post was assigned a number between 1 and 15. In the event the generator randomly selected post 15, and that post did not exist for that page, another number was generated. In the event two posts were to be selected on a single page, and the number generator randomly drew the same number twice, a new number was also generated. This process was repeated until a sample of 314 posts were selected. Upon initial review of the sample, three of the posts turned out to be duplicates and were eliminated, bringing the final sample total to 311. The very first post, dated August 23, was eliminated from possible selection in the sample. Posts selected for examination begin on September 25, 2011, and end on June 14, 2013.

All posts are anonymous, in that no one reveals their full identity or any contact information. Only a handful of contributors offered their first name, however, a significant proportion of contributors were forthcoming about their age. I thought it wise to tally the information in a frequency chart, believing that it would be an important dimension for analysis later. Below is a table of the final tallies. Of the 311 posts randomly sampled, 37% (115 contributors) provided age explicitly. Many others alluded to their age with references to major life events like participation in college, marriage and having children, but only contributors who provided an exact age were included in this tally.

Of the contributors that provided their age, over 60% were between the ages of 20 to 29, lending weight to the idea that Occupy was primarily a “youth oriented movement” (Gainer, 2011; Grossman, 2011; Klein, 2011; Mirkinson, 2011; Rutkoff, 2011; Hatem, 2012; Gitlin, 2013). Posts written by protest supporters in their 20s accounts for 22.5% of the entire sample extracted from the Tumblr thread. If we extend the definition of “youth” to include anyone under the age of 30, from my sample alone, youth account for 75% of contributors who provided their age, and 28% of all posts collected in the sample.

Without having measured the frequency of testimonials posted on any given day during the analysis of the sample, perceivably, the heaviest concentration of activity the Tumblr feed received was within the first two months of protest, with a noticeable decline in posts thereafter. Posts begin to trickle in even before protests officially began on September 17, with a definitive spike in activity beginning in late September (28-30), gaining momentum in October. Posting occurs often and consistently throughout October, with large spikes mid-month, October 16-17, and near the end of the month, around October 28. We begin to notice a decline in posting in November, with fewer posts per day, but still evenly distributed throughout the month. There is some mid-month spiking in November as well, around the 11th-14th. By December, activity on the feed declines dramatically, with periods sometimes lasting a few days before a new post is uploaded. By September 2012, a full year after protests began, participation on the feed is almost non-existent, with contributors adding to the feed once every few weeks.

Systematic analysis of the Tumblr blogs revealed more than just an age concentration among youth contributors, it also revealed the habitual usage of several keywords and phrases. Once it became evident that certain terms would appear frequently throughout the sample, I began formulating a list, which, by the end of the second close reading, contained 75 words and phrases. Using Microsoft Word 365’s built-in word search functionality, I was able to construct a frequency table to illustrate the number of times each word or phrase appeared in the sample, as well as the number of individual posts in which the term was used. Below is a list of the top 25 most frequently used words in the Tumblr sample, with the aforementioned frequency table found in Appendix 1.7. Column (a) titled “Mentions” indicates the number of times a word appeared in the entire 311 post sample, column (b) indicates how many individual posts in which the term appeared (accounting for multiple usage of the term in a single post, as well as to get a sense of how many individual contributors used the term). Column (c) translates the figures in column (b) into a percentage; a calculation of how many posts out of the 311 the term appeared. Referring to the term “Employment,” for example, the table indicates that the word itself was used 57 times in 47 individual posts, which represents about 15% of the posts selected for the sample. We need to discount the importance of some of the more obvious frequently appearing terms for the purposes of this analysis, such as “99%” (a term participants were instructed to include in order to contribute to the Tumblr feed), and “Occupy,” the event being supported.

The best way to fulfill Mills (1959) and Young’s (2011) requirement that an imaginative exploration of an event be performed with specific attention to the personal biographies of those involved or affected, is thorough examination of this randomly selected sample of posts from the “We are the 99 Percent” Tumblr feed. The performance of multiple close readings of the sample, combined with the collection of age and keyword data, allowed for the development of several “protestor profiles” that emerged from the text, discussed in the remainder of this third sub-study. Each profile is a portrait illustrating the common characteristics belonging to some of the more prominent subgroups of protestors evident in the sample. Exploring the personal biographies of protest supporters and participants satisfies the third pillar of the “fundamental triangle” linking individual troubles with the larger historical context and social issues addressed in Chapters 3 and 4. This chapter addresses two fundamental questions: who are the 99 Percent, and why do they support the Occupy Movement?

The “American Dream” & “Broken Promises”

The term “American Dream” is used often in the source material (40 mentions according to my analysis). Unfortunately, the idea is only ever referred to in the abstract. None of the contributors make an effort to describe in detail what they mean when referring to the construct. The closest thing to a “definition” that can be found within the sample is provided by a contributor on October 11: “The American Dream is not to become rich. It is to see the fruit of your labors, whatever they may be. It is to EARN your rewards.” The statement speaks to a sentiment that runs consistently throughout the sample regarding the desire to be given a fair opportunity to earn wealth and success, as opposed to being given government “handouts” in the form of social security and food stamps. Based solely on the types of grievances aired within the Tumblr thread, we can safely assume that the American Dream implies the availability of opportunities for wealth and success within the established social and economic system, regardless of race, gender, class, or any other label that serves to divide and stratify society. The notion of “availability of opportunity” is reinforced in a post uploaded on November 6:

I grew up believing what I was told, the American Dream was available to everyone. I was fairly uninterested in politics and the working of our system until High School. Once you see the first lie, the others uncover themselves. I have never known a time in this country that was truly free and just. All I want is my American Dream, and for everyone else to achieve theirs.

Despite a lack of definition, there is overwhelming consensus within the testimonial sample that the American Dream is a failure, or that it no longer exists, or, that the dream has actually become a “nightmare.” Part of a statement posted on October 26, 2011, aptly illustrates the typical usage of the term:

I owe over $40k in student loans and I cannot find a job. My son is now in college, racking up his own debt, and I am delivering pizzas in an attempt to keep him there. The prospect of someday owning a house is a pipe dream for me. Our parents always told us that if we worked hard and stayed responsible, everything would work out. Well it hasn’t. This is not the future I was promised. I did everything I was supposed to do and much more, and I have received NONE of the payoffs. This is not the American Dream. It’s a nightmare.

One over-arching theme that connects a vast majority of the testimonials, illustrated in the post above, is the idea of “broken promises.” Each testimonial is partially a declaration of anger and frustration from individuals who attempted to obtain wealth and success the prescribed “conventional way” – by going to school, getting a degree, entering the job market and competing for positions at large companies – only to find out upon completion of this process that their chances of securing a job are no better than those who decided to enter the workforce immediately after high school. A contributor who posted on October 14 discusses this idea in some detail:

My husband is also a music teacher. He doesn’t know whether he’ll have a job next year. His district is fighting to discontinue compensation for higher education…meaning that Master’s Degree he’s working for? Yeah, it will be worth nothing. $20,000 down the toilet. What’s the point of higher education if you can’t improve yourself AND your quality of life with it? And he had to take a pay cut to boot.The governor of my state makes $100,000+ with NO DEGREE. Yet people with an education are getting shafted for wages and benefits so wealthy people and corporations can have tax breaks.

Many express concern over the lack of available jobs for college graduates, a concern that alludes to a much larger issue pertaining to the American unemployment rate and overall health of the economy. A statement posted on October 2 is a prime example of this concern:

I am about to receive my Ph.D. in a technical science from an Ivy League school.  I earned scholarships and worked two full-time jobs in college to get here.  I have worked on research and taught classes for six years on a stipend that would qualify me for welfare.  There are NO jobs waiting for me when I get my doctoral degree.  Despite working for the past six years, my university files graduate labor under a tax code that prevents me from applying for unemployment and that saves the university unforetold in tax breaks.  Because the school is a private institution, we graduate students are unable to unionize, despite the fact that we provide a significant amount of the teaching and research labor that makes this school $$. EDUCATION IS NOT A PRIVILEGE but in this country it is held captive as such.

The harsh reality to which many contributors offer insight is that candidacy for a “good” job does not hinder on one’s academic training and credentials, but rather, the practical, on-site experience that can only be achieved having worked the job (or something similar) previously. There is no guarantee that your post-secondary or graduate education will be recognized as “valuable” in the private sector.

The true “value” of education is an issue fundamentally in dispute within the sample. Contributors wonder why they have to pay such a high premium for post-secondary and graduate education when very few actually see any practical benefit after graduation. Contributors are not questioning their decision to attend school, but instead, are upset at how much it cost them to get their degree, which they believe, gives them no advantages in the competing job market. Posts published on October 11 and 19 respectively, illustrate this anger and frustration:

I just graduated college in May. I earned a 4.0 GPA, went to an ABA- Approved paralegal program, and did a semester-long internship with the county. However, now I cannot find a job. “Entry-level” jobs are going to people with 5+ years of experience. (WHAT??) I have even applied to be a file clerk at multiple firms. They told me that they have ATTORNEYS applying for the same positions. How can I compete with that? I am now considering going back to retail- back to minimum wage. It is better than NO wage. I would go back to school, but I have drained my savings in order to get THIS degree.

I have sent out hundreds of resumes without responses. I have long “lowered my standards” and applied to any job. However, even janitor positions require at least a year of previous janitorial experience. The few job interviews I had in my field were nerve-wracking group job interviews where I was staring my competition of seven or eight people, young and old, in the face competing for one job position. In other professional job interviews, I was told that I was competing against people who “worked in the industry” who had decades of experience. I have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a job

Most graduates in the sample are finding it difficult to secure meaningful, stable employment, while others are disappointed at the wages and salaries they earn at the jobs they were fortunate enough to secure, notwithstanding their academic qualifications. A contributor who posted on October 13, 2011, speaks to this problem:

I am a 24 years old. I graduated from a state university in December of 2010 with a degree in sociology. I currently work 2 part time jobs at a local community college, one of which I will lose January 1st because of crippling state budget cuts. I’ve been looking for full time employment since I finished school…haven’t even landed an interview. I owe over $34K in student loans, but will ultimately pay back over $60K with interest.

Many participants to Tumblr share stories of how they have tried to balance their lives within the current system, finding difficulty allocating the time necessary to be an effective, successful student, and make enough money at their job to both pay living expenses and outstanding tuition debt. The problem is that individuals make such low wages that they have to work extra time at their jobs, or take on second jobs, in order to afford the education they are pursuing. As a result, many aspects of their life begin to suffer, including the education they are so vehemently working towards. Graduates, and current students for that matter, consistently complain about their overwhelming student loan debt, which they fear will cripple them financially for the better part of their lives, possibly preventing them from purchasing a home or having children. Post-secondary education is thus perceived as an extremely expensive and risky gamble, one that many were told was a “sure thing.” The gamble transcends that of just monetary investment, with the opportunity cost of having missed out on obtaining work experience, potentially outweighing the value of the knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom. Understood from a strictly accounting / mathematical standpoint, college education in America has shown itself to have a horrible Return on Investment.

There is a definite sense of regret throughout the sample among those commenting on their college or university education. College is viewed by many as a crucial turning point in life; when the injustices and inequities inherent in the current social and economic order present themselves in the most pronounced ways. The decision to attend college or university is one that many contributors, a group of protest supporters I like to refer to as the “disgruntled students,” would easily take back, having only realized the error in their decision-making after graduation. Participants are disappointed with the education system as a whole, convinced that educational institutions are as corrupt as corporations and the governments that fund them. Post-secondary institutions are also driven by profit; the system happily churns out individuals who are unemployed and in substantial debt, as long as tuition has been paid.

This “promise” that was engrained in people as children, through traditional channels of socialization such as parents and teachers, resembles more of a method or formula for obtaining wealth, success, and ultimately a sense of happiness and fulfillment, within the established social and economic system. The method that is taught to young generations establishes an irrefutable link between higher education, availability of worthwhile employment opportunities, and financial security. Active participation within the system, following the prescribed formula which determines certain decisions and events throughout one’s life course, is necessary if one is to have an opportunity at becoming “upper class.” From this perspective, the world is viewed as a type of game, where adherence to the rules, and following the laid out path provided, is the best way to ensure you finish the game a winner. Contributors are expressing a very deep sense of betrayal, believing they were fed lies about the functioning and operation of the established order, and that none of the outcomes they were promised have materialized.

Employment & Debt

Among all the keywords examined during analysis of the sample, none can match the frequency and density of those related to the topic of “employment.” The words “work” and “job” are far and away the most reoccurring words in the sample, suggesting definitively that the foremost concern among contributors to the thread centers around employment; either finding employment in a market that lacks available options, or ensuring that compensation received at “low-skilled” positions is commensurate with the amount of knowledge and labour needed to perform responsibilities. Of those who commented on their employment circumstances in the sample, a distinction can be drawn between those who are “unemployed” and those who are “underemployed” (who can also be referred to as the “working poor”). The inability to find any form of employment is an issue that affects more than just recent college graduates. Contributors from all walks of life, at differing stages throughout the life course, express the same difficulty finding employment. Posts offered on October 6 and 29 illustrate this point:

My younger sister has a Ph.D. and I have a master’s degree. We were both laid off in our 50s after long successful careers and have been unemployed for years now. For the first time in my adult life, I had become unemployed and without health insurance. She finally got a job in Canada recently, but I never recovered from the psychological and financial destruction.

My new husband of three weeks is an unemployed skilled laborer. He applies for jobs but does ot hear anything.  It is a struggle to pay all the bills.  Food comes from the food bank.  Medical bills are only partially paid.  We have regular expenses for medications.  Car insurance is almost unaffordable, but cars are necessary to get to any jobs in our community.

A good example of the issue of “underemployment” is provided in a statement uploaded on December, 10, 2011:

My job that only pays me $30,000/year REQUIRES a college degree per the state. I am a QDDP and work at a company that provides care for individuals with developmental disabilities. We are responsible for every aspect of many of these people’s lives, from their finances to feeding, dressing, and bathing some. I am glad my job helps people but no one in my field is paid for the actual amount of work they do. Many of our caregivers work multiple jobs because a direct service worker is lucky if they can earn $10/hour.

The issue with diminished employment prospects can be reduced to an imbalance between supply and demand. The fear being described by both unemployed and underemployed contributors alike is the idea of a perceived job shortage in America. There are many who are forced to settle for low-paying jobs because salary positions do not exist. But for others, conversely, the belief in job scarcity is so powerful, that many who can be considered “dramatically over-qualified” are seeking out low-skilled positions to supplement their income in the event of a complete economic collapse, creating even fiercer competition for jobs at the bottom of the economic spectrum. In addition, close analysis of the sample reveals an alternative hypothesis to account for the perceived job shortage: the growing trend towards procuring multiple minimum wage jobs in order to “scrape by,” which also has the consequence of shrinking the available job pool for those who have yet to secure a single job. The polarization among Tumblr contributors is fascinating, with a significant segment of posters complaining about being incapable of securing any job, while others are exhausted and frustrated over how little they make at the many part-time, minimum wage jobs they possess. A post published on October 24, 2011, is an example of the latter:

I’m 19 years old. I make less than 8k a year. I work two minimum wage jobs from 11 am to 1 am with only 30 minutes between jobs. I have no time and no money to go to college. I don’t qualify for financial aid because my mom, who I see twice a year, makes 35k a year. She can’t even afford to support me, how is she supposed to pay for college? I’m already $1300 in debt for leaving an abusive relationship and in return abandoning a lease. I REFUSE to go 120k more in debt for student loans when there may not be a job for me when I graduate.

A popular phrase that is used by contributors in relation to this issue is “paycheck to paycheck” (which appeared 15 times in the sample). The phrase is used as a short-hand for describing the inability to save money as a result of extremely low wages, with every last dollar of income being spent towards bills. There is an undertone of uncertainty associated with the term, alluding to the idea that most people enjoy little, if any, financial security, never knowing whether the next paycheck will be enough to “break even.” A contribution from October 29 illustrates this sentiment:

I did everything I was supposed to do. I went to school and got a good education. I got my degree and moved to an area where jobs are supposed to be easier to find. The only credit card I have is for my medical expenses. I live within my means; I’m not a big spender. Yet I’m still living paycheck to paycheck, and I have no idea how I’m going to continue to pay my living expenses, medical bills, and somehow find a way to pay for grad school in order to get the further skills necessary to get a “real job,” because apparently a bachelor’s degree doesn’t cut it anymore. I have sent out 120+ job

Contributors work multiple jobs, not be able to send their children to an expensive private school or buy a luxury foreign car, but to make enough money to pay for bare essentials and necessities. People do not WANT to work two or more jobs, they HAVE to. The “opportunity” that Occupy supporters are demanding equitable access to, is not parody with the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the ability to acquire just enough wealth to live a happy, comfortable existence. People work so much that other aspects of their life inevitably suffer: an inability to raise children, having to rely on friends and family for childcare; an inability to pursue an education because tuition is too expensive; and, in instances where an effort is made to go to school, people suffer health issues and sleep disorders resulting from exhaustion having to work multiple minimum wage jobs and attend school full-time.

Households that are fortunate enough to have multiple income streams, are not limited to those situations where a sole parent carries the entire family’s financial burden. The issues being identified by members of the 99% on Tumblr suggest that they affect the family unit as much, if not more than any one individual. Evidence of this can be found in the sheer number of contributors speaking on behalf of their families, detailing the obstacles and hardships they have encountered as a unit, resulting from the inequitable and corrupt social and economic order. Of those who contributed, a significant segment could be described as the “breadwinner of the family,” either the matriarch or patriarch of the household, commenting on the issues they, their spouses and children, have endured with regards to money, employment and individual health. A vast majority of participants identify themselves as parents with young children; many are young parents themselves, trying to balance school, work and parenthood simultaneously.

I am lucky to have a job. However my entire department was laid off with the exception of four of us and we are now doing the work of twenty people. My best friend at the job who had been with the company since for over ten years was laid off for being too expensive to retain. I work at least 60 hours a week and do not claim overtime because I am afraid of being punished for it. I often take work home with me on weekends too. And yet with all this hard work and a family with two bread-winners we are still far from rich, and after seeing what happened to my friend, don’t think I will ever find a company that will reward my loyalty. My father who used to own his own business lost his business to competition from a big conglomerate on corporate welfare. When did this become acceptable? Why has it taken us so long to fight back? (October 16, 2011)

The sentiment among this group is that of genuine concern and fear over the well-being of their immediate family and close loved ones, with some feeling like inadequate providers for their children.

Commentary on the struggles encountered by the American family is not limited to the insight provided by the primary breadwinner, with many sons and daughters offering their own accounts of the hardships experienced by their parents. An excellent example of this is provided by a poster on October 3, 2011:

My father is 64. He was a public school teacher for 20 years before being let go. He was unemployed for 2 years off and on between night jobs and private school gigs. He is currently a security guard at a cigar factory. At 62 he had to borrow early from his retirement pension and may not have enough for 5 years from now. He makes $8/hr with a degree. My mother is 60. She has worked in the insurance industry since she graduated high school. She lost her job in February and has applied for 700 jobs and has started losing hope at ever finding one at her age. The first line of unemployment ran out and she is uninsured. She has type 2 diabetes and hypertension. She recently was hospitalized because she bought food instead of medication.

Another example of a child speaking on behalf of their parents, posted on November 24, is exemplary for two reasons. First, it suggests that poverty can become entrenched throughout a family’s lineage, getting “passed on” from generation to generation like hand-me-down clothing. Second, it provides yet another example of how one parents’ financial problems can translate into dire consequences for the family as a whole, emphasizing the idea that, for some families, maintaining adequate living conditions and avoiding homelessness often hinges on the employment successes or failures of one member:

I am 20 yrs old. I come from 3 generations of poverty. My family is made of teachers and farmers. MY grandparents hometown is a ghost town now. My mother has moved into a 27 ft trailer with no heat or running water. She is a single mother, with multiple untreated health problems, much like the rest of my friends and family. She is missing 1/2 of her teeth. She worked in the adult industry to put me through school. Eventually, with yrs of hard work, she took over a vintage clothing store – in 2007. When the economy crashed, she was forced to pay rent @ the store instead of our mortgage. We lost the house & the store.

The ultimate consequence that all contributors share despite their varying individual circumstances, is that they simply do not have enough money to comfortably survive day-to-day, falling deeper into an escalating debt that is compounded with interest. Contributors make it abundantly clear that they are subject to ever mounting debt, acknowledging several sources, including automobile insurance and repairs, rent and mortgage payments, medical expenses, student loan debt, credit card debt, personal and small business loans, back taxes, and others. Statements uploaded to Tumblr on October 3 and November 30 offer a glimpse at the variety of debt sources contributors are subject to:

I am 28 years old and one of the lucky ones. I own 2 small businesses and work over 100 hours a week in order to cover: my rent ($1300/month for a small one bedroom), debt from college (>$10k left to go), credit card debt (>$6,000 and staying close to the same even though I am paying more than the minimum every month), car payment (on a loan with a 15% interest rate, which no bank will re-finance even though my credit has improved greatly and my income has raised since I purchased the car), I have no health insurance because I was denied due to a pre-existing condition and my status as self- employed doesn’t qualify me for a group plans. I pay for healthcare out of pocket and get no preventative care at all. I live in fear of being injured or requiring hospitalization. I have enough money for food and my other bills each month, but that’s about it. I have no savings. I am lucky, but I am the 99%

I was almost debt-free when I was struck by a major medical crisis at the age of 37. After a long recovery, I am back to work. My paycheck now supports seven people – none of whom are my partner, spouse, or children. My once modest debt has grown exponentially. I fear for my health and have no idea how I will pay debt, save, and retire. I am the 99%.

However, despite all the issues identified by contributors with regards to access to opportunity, education, employment, wages and debt, and, despite the overall sense of anger and frustration undeniable throughout the sample, contributors still express a sense of “good fortune”, albeit, both genuine and sarcastic. The word “lucky” appears in the sample over 130 times, with the mantra, “we are the lucky ones,” appearing at least 30 times. Many contributors to the thread consider themselves fortunate for the low-paying jobs and small luxuries they are able to afford. Those that have completed their education with little or no debt, managed to secure a stable job with health benefits, own property and have families, are all among those who consider themselves “lucky.” Statements made on October 12 and 19 offers what appears to be genuine sense of gratefulness:

And we’re the lucky ones? We are.  WE ARE THE LUCKY ONES. We have so much, relatively speaking. We are fed, housed, we have a little money for extras like cat food and vet bills. We are hanging on, hard. We are lucky and we know how fickle luck can be. We are the 99%.

I have never had a full time job.  They have all been “part time” jobs where I work 40+ hours a week, but they don’t want to give me the higher level of benefits. I hate my job, but I stay and work hard because I know I am lucky to have it.  I am one of the privileged few to still have good benefits.

The sarcasm apparent in some of the statements reveals an underlying subtext of resentment towards those who have power and control over the operation of the social and economic system. It is a form of subtle objection to the idea that “people should be thankful for what little they have,” when clearly, there is a small minority of citizens who have everything they can possibly want.

I’m one of the lucky ones to be allowed to live off of credit and $10/hr administration jobs for 6 years.  It was just enough money to pay my tuition and survive.  I’m one of the lucky ones to have a scholarship for 3 years enlistment in the Federal Government.  I promise when I get there, I will fight for what I didn’t have: a  childhood. I am the 99 percent and I am occupying Wall Street. (October 29, 2011)

Inherent in these expressions of gratitude is a disheartening recognition on the part of Occupy supporters that being in possession of things such as a job, health insurance, a vehicle, and a home, are all essentially privileges that only some are privy to, instead of “rights” (by which I mean, equally distributed opportunities) that all citizens can enjoy.

Summary

The “American Dream” is identified in the Tumblr thread, “We Are The 99 Percent,” as a common goal among Occupy supporters. The exact details of this dream are vaguely defined in the post sample, but a conventional understanding of the term suggests a desire to achieve a lifestyle that encompasses all of the luxuries and conveniences afforded to those with high incomes. A feature of this dream is an understanding of the U.S. as a “land of opportunity,” a place where anyone, regardless of background or social standing, has a chance of becoming wealthy and successful, provided they exhibit a propensity to work, a commitment to their trade, and investment in their own skills development. The “capitalist promise” refers to the ability of the economic system to distribute rewards fairly, providing assurance that wealth allocation is determined on the basis of merit. Contributors to the thread recognize that achieving a financially lucrative lifestyle requires hard work and commitment, particularly in the form of acquiring marketable skills through years of post-secondary education and workplace training. If the American Dream is the goal, or the ideal outcome individuals hope to accomplish through participation in the American capitalist system, than the capitalist promise is the perception that the system will deliver opportunities for this outcome through adherence to a “prescribed formula.” This “prescribed formula” is less of a pathway to prosperity as it is a widely accepted list of activities that have social and economic merit, participation in which, significantly increases one’s chances of being monetarily successful.

The assumption implied in the American Dream and the capitalist promise is that the availability of opportunity applies to everyone, and that the only thing separating the impoverished from the wealthy are poor life choices and a lack of motivation. However, the reality experienced by many Occupy supporters who contributed to Tumblr suggests the opposite. The primary concern among all contributors, which serves as the foundation for many of the specific grievances identified by Occupy supporters, is that the prescribed formula for success, requiring faith in the capitalist system to deliver the rewards embodied in the American Dream, is fundamentally a lie. Contributors express a deep sense of betrayal, believing they were denied a fair opportunity to earn wealth, despite having participated in activities that are commonly believed to hold “value” and warrant financial rewards.

The most frequently mentioned of these activities in the source material is participation in post-secondary education. Students and Graduates of American colleges and universities make up a significant portion of contributors to the Tumblr thread, many of whom question the fundamental value of their education in their post entries. Attending college requires a large financial investment, one that forces a vast majority of students to assume debt in order to afford tuition. Because of the magnitude of this investment, students, understandably, want assurance that their education will translate into employment opportunities after graduation. This assurance is provided through a socially reinforced misconception built on assumptions that are in keeping with a merit-based model. It is many of these assumptions that are disputed by contributors in the source material. A “high-paying job,” one that enables the individual to afford more than bare essentials for living, requires a post-secondary education or better to secure. Anything less than a post-secondary education puts the individual at a significant disadvantage in the competitive job market, because they perceivably lack skills and knowledge necessary to be eligible for higher-paying positions. Conversely, college graduates are perceived as more desirable job applicants by employers because of the specialized skills they possess, making them more qualified for coveted positions that include higher salaries. Unfortunately, contributors to Tumblr outline a harsh reality that renders these assumptions moot. First, many graduates argue that their academic credentials mean less to potential employers than previous job experience. And second, many contend that available job positions that utilize their education, simply do not exist.

The availability, or lack of available employment prospects, is a concern that extends beyond students and graduates in the sample. Contributors of all ages identifying themselves as unemployed or underemployed, both single and with families to support, express concern about the overall health of the U.S. job market. Outrage and frustration among contributors to the sample stems from an inability to find employment, or the realization that job responsibilities, and compensation, are not commensurate with the credentials acquired in school. Of the jobs that are available, many claim the majority are low-skilled and pay minimum wage. Unemployment and underemployment account for several individual consequences discussed among contributors, the most important of which is the accumulation of debt. Debt of all forms, from student loans, home mortgages, car payments, credit cards, healthcare expenses, and others, combined with minimum wage job prospects, creates a perpetual cycle of poverty that is impossible to escape. Individuals in the sample with escalating debt, families to support, or both, describe living “paycheck to paycheck,” barely breaking even, making just enough or less than needed to afford food, clothing and shelter. The truly disheartening fact is that many contributors, despite these circumstances, consider themselves “lucky” to be able to afford the bare minimum needed to live.

[1] The random number generator application

Jason Quintal | December 19, 2015

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