Why the Wall Street Protests Are Going Mainstream

A lot of Americans are discovering they share the same kind of economic pain.

By SHARE

Who are they? What's their beef? And what do they want?

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the nation, pundits have struggled to define what it's about. The protesters themselves boast that there's no established leadership and no particular agenda, except to highlight the financial stress faced by the "99 percent" of Americans who aren't rich.

[See 12 ways to thrive in a stagnant economy.]

But as the movement evolves and a deeper profile emerges, one commonality seems to bind the protesters carrying signs and camping in parks with less demonstrative people watching from home: too much debt and a lack of income to pay it off.

Conservative critics have been quick to deride the protesters in New York and many other cities as fringe characters who are too lazy to work and content to sponge off of others. But that caricature isn't holding up. Pollster Doug Schoen says his firm interviewed 200 New York protesters and found that only 15 percent claimed to be unemployed, while the rest, presumably, held jobs or attended school. While the protesters are probably more activist-minded than the average Joe, in other ways they're similar. Only 44 percent of them approve of the job President Obama is doing, for example, which is nearly identical to how Americans feel overall.

The protesters also seem to reflect broader national strains when it comes to the amount of personal debt they're carrying. There are no polls on this (yet), but Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute notes that debt seems to be the single most prominent theme of the signs used by protesters to convey what they're angry about—particularly online, where the movement has taken up a lively presence.

[See 5 economic problems worth protesting.]

At the movement's Tumblr page, for example, thousands of people have posted pictures of themselves with notes or signs explaining their gripes. A cursory scan of a few dozen pages suggests that about two thirds of these protesters have student loans, medical bills not covered by insurance, or other kinds of debt they're struggling to pay off. Many of the people with student loans complain that they've got a degree, but lack the income to repay the loans they took out to get it. "I am 32," explains one man . "I have a an MBA. I'm sitting on a mountain of school loans. I am extremely thankful to have a job…. However, I make as much as I did with a B.S. degree 7 years ago."

The online protesters may be a different breed than those braving the elements and grappling with police in New York's Zuccotti Park, but if anything, they're more mainstream and representative of the middle class as a whole. And they're giving voice to a major problem that's far from solved. It's well known that American consumers binged on debt for 20 years, finally maxing out their collective credit card in 2007, when the amount of debt per household hit record levels. Consumers have been slowly paying down debt since then, but they still have a long way to go before the typical debt load reverts to historical norms. That augurs many more years of depressed spending and subpar economic growth.

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Meanwhile, one type of debt in particular has risen to record levels: student loans. Borrowing by students now totals more than $100 billion per year, with borrowers on the hook for nearly $1 trillion in total student-loan debt. About two thirds of college graduates take out loans to help pay their way through school, and the typical borrower begins life after college with nearly $25,000 in debt.

Of all the things there are to invest in, education remains one of the best choices, and it was logical for many students to go to school during the recession instead of competing for scarce jobs. But the old assumptions about taking on debt to pay for college are beginning to wilt, just like other types of conventional wisdom about how to get ahead. College grads are still far more successful than those without a degree, but the type of education people get seems to matter more than it used to. There's a glut of arts and humanities graduates, for example, but a much tighter supply of people with a science or engineering background.

Nor do jobs simply materialize once you've got a college degree. The unemployment rate for workers ages 20 to 24 is 14.7 percent, and for workers between 25 and 29 it's 10.3 percent. The national average is 9.1 percent, so workers in their 20s have a tougher time finding jobs than people in some of the older age brackets. Students have long been encouraged to pile up debt, since it's supposed to pay for itself, through the higher lifetime earnings that come with a college degree. But if there are no jobs available--or none that pay enough of a premium to cover student-loan repayments—then the financing equation breaks down.

[See 11 things wrong with Congress.]

The whole nation is undergoing an economic transformation, as privileges we once took for granted—such as rising incomes, improving living standards, job security, and predictable careers—become the exception to the rule. Globalization and technology are forcing down pay for many workers and rapidly making other jobs obsolete. It's a complex blend of forces that even economists don't completely understand. And we may still be in the early days of a long period of change. So it's not surprising that a movement borne of such turbulence lacks a distinctive rallying cry.

Yet many Americans know something is wrong, and polls are beginning to suggest that the Occupy Wall Street movement is tapping into a wide vein of discontent. In Gallup polls, 22 percent of Americans say their financial situation is poor, the highest proportion in the 10-year history of the survey. Nearly half of Americans think their financial situation is getting worse, with just 29 percent saying it's getting better—a sharp reversal of the optimism most Americans felt before the recession. Polls by the Pew Research Center show that Americans consider Wall Street more harmful than helpful, and strongly believe that the government favors the rich over the middle or working class.

[See how politicians are wrecking the economy.]

The Wall Street protesters may not pay much attention to polls, but pollsters—and politicians, and the media—are starting to pay attention to them. That's because they know that the protesters are onto something. The question now is how much of the embattled middle class will join their cause.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

  • See photos of the Occupy Wall Street protests
  • See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street
  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.