Occupy Protesters Inject Income Inequality Into Political Debate

The protest against income inequality that has taken over a park near Wall Street and public squares around the world is also occupying the U.S. political debate.

For the past eight weeks, the demonstrators, some of whom are beginning a march to Washington from New York City today, have been chanting “we are the 99 percent.” That’s a reference to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing the richest 1 percent control 40 percent of U.S. wealth.

Their message may be resonating. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed said the U.S. wealth gap is larger now than it has been in the past, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released today. The survey also found that six in 10 said they support government efforts to reduce that disparity.

Occupy Wall Street has “started to change the debate in the country” and has “pried open some questions people hadn’t been asking,” said Nina Eliasoph, a sociologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who studies grassroots political activism.

The New York protesters, who have camped in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park since Sept. 17, will set out today for “Occupy the Highway,” according to an e-mailed statement. They plan to trek about 20 miles (32 kilometers) a day, holding rallies that will culminate in a demonstration in Washington aimed at the congressional supercommittee. The panel has until Nov. 23 to carve $1.5 trillion out of the federal budget.

Targeting the Supercommittee

Organizers said they draw inspiration from the U.S. civil-rights movement in the 1960s and hope the disaffected in rural communities will join them. The Washington rally will call on the supercommittee to consider the plight of the middle class and poor when identifying cuts and to let tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans expire.

Though the protesters have refrained from officially defining targeted policy prescriptions, the unifying theme from Toronto to Tokyo has been to label as unjust the growing gap between the rich and poor.

A Congressional Budget Office report released last month backed up their message. It showed that from 1979 to 2007, after-tax income grew by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, compared with 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

‘Huge Change’

“We’ve taken for granted that it’s a natural fact that the rich keep getting richer compared to the 1950s, when there was a big middle class and not such a gap between the rich and the poor,” Eliasoph said in a telephone interview. People are now starting to ask why, and “that’s a huge change in the political landscape,” she said.

Franklin Gilliam, the dean of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, agreed, saying the protesters have “made questions of inequality salient.”

Occupiers’ dissatisfaction with income inequality takes place during a long-term decline in U.S. economic health and consumer confidence, as measured by Bloomberg indexes.

With unemployment about or above 9 percent for the last 30 months, individuals’ confidence during the week that ended Oct. 20 fell to the lowest level since the depths of the recession in the first quarter of 2009, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index. At minus 53.2, the gauge is at its second-lowest reading in almost 26 years. It peaked in 2000 at 38.0 and has held below minus 50 for six of the past seven weeks, a period unmatched even during the 2008-2009 economic slump.

Consumer Sentiment

Consumers’ waning sentiment also reflects the after-effects on the states of the 18-month recession that began in December 2007, the longest since World War II, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States indexes show that 35 recorded gains in the second quarter, compared with the same period in 2010, only two -- North Dakota and Michigan -- are above levels at the end of 2009’s first half.

Diverting attention from the Republican story line of condemning President Barack Obama’s policies and a sputtering economy may help the Democratic Party as it heads into the 2012 elections, said Andrew McFarland, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s brought the issue of the economy and Wall Street, or the other 1 percent, to the forefront, and that’s what Obama wants,” said McFarland, who studies social movements. “Obama’s economic failure is getting less attention.”

Tea Party Comparison

Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in a similar way to the Tea Party, which put the debt and deficit at the center of the political discussion in recent years, said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. The online organization was founded in its opposition to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and became an advocate for the health-care overhaul and other issues.

In the U.K., students demonstrated in London’s financial district today against education budget cuts and increased tuition fees, with police on standby to prevent a repetition of violence that marred similar protests last year. Organizers said the protest was directed toward the City, as the financial district is known, partly to coincide with the anti-capitalism demonstrations that have seen tented camps set up outside St. Paul’s and in Finsbury Square, near Moorgate.

More than 2,000 protesters assembled at the University of London in Bloomsbury, the Metropolitan Police said in a text message. There were violent protests in central London in December after the House of Commons voted to allow universities to triple annual tuition fees to as much as 9,000 pounds ($14,500).

----With assistance from Bob Willis in Washington and Namitha Jagadeesh in London, Editors: Mark Schoifet, William Glasgall

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