“I keep waking up on the wrong side of capitalism.”
So said a hand-lettered sign held by a protester at one of the “Occupy” rallies being conducted across the country.
The original “Occupy Wall Street” movement has spread from large communities to small, including Augusta and Portland.
The movement’s goals are foggy, but the basic complaint seems to be the continuing impoverishment of ordinary Americans by high unemployment and foreclosures.
Millions have exhausted their unemployment benefits. Millions of others have lost their homes in the recession or mortgage crisis. Many more are for the first time living in homes that are worth tens of thousands of dollars less than what they paid for them.
It is not a happy picture and it is leading to growing frustration and anger.
Fueling that anger is what the protesters see as rising income inequality in the U.S. Over the past 30 years, more and more of our national wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.
Meanwhile, those in the bottom 10 or 20 percent find themselves hungry, homeless or without access to health care.
The wealthy, of course, have also been hit by this prolonged downturn in the economy. However, the economist Edward Wolff estimates that the average household has lost 36.1 percent of its wealth, while the top 1 percent of households lost far less, 11 percent.
When it comes to stocks, bonds, pensions, IRAs, Keoghs and 401(k) plans, the top-earning 5 percent of Americans control 72 percent of the nation’s financial wealth. The bottom 80 percent own only 7 percent, according to Wolff.
Ordinary Americans are seeing the same trend in wages and salaries. In 1965, the average American CEO earned 24 times more than the average worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
By 2005, executive compensation had exploded to 262 times the income of the average worker.
Even more puzzling is the way CEO compensation has far outstripped the growth of profits at U.S. companies.
The discussion is more than academic. America has always been a place where ordinary people have had a shot at improving their lives and, perhaps, living more prosperously than their parents.
However, PEW Center research shows that is quickly changing. Men in their 30s today are earning less money in inflation-adjusted dollars than men at the same age in their father’s generation.
Meanwhile, the chance of upward income mobility is now better in a host of other countries than in the U.S.
People living in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and France have a better chance of improving their lot in life than the average American.
While the “Occupy” movement has been slow to clarify its demands, two words seem to surface most often: “economic justice.”
They express the feeling of many Americans that their futures and economic security have been stolen over the past decade by forces beyond their control.
Winter will likely bring an end to the “Occupy” tent camps in major U.S. cities. But only a strong economy and more economic equality will dispel the anger.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.