Op-ed column: Rich get richer as the rest stagnate

According to figures recently released by the Census Bureau, about 33 percent of our country lives a

According to figures recently released by the Census Bureau, about 33 percent of our country lives at, or perilously close, to the poverty level.

How this figure is determined varies depending on whether non-cash government benefits, such as food stamps and rent subsidies, are included, but overall it’s generally agreed that an income of less than $25,000 per year for a family of four is a very slim margin for survival.

In these same Census Bureau figures, income for the middle-income group, which used to ensure a middle-class comfort, has also been diminishing through job cuts, unemployment and increased prices for such basic needs as food, gas and heating oil.

In short, while the rich are still rich — and have been getting more so — the middle class is poorer, and the poor are still around — and increasing. Forty-nine million of them now, lining up at the food pantry, the social services office, the unemployment office and culling the racks at the Goodwill for winter clothes. What is most remarkable about this suffering is their acquiescence, their lack of protest. Very few of them have the time or the inclination to occupy Wall Street or any other street for very long.

Forgotten voice

The poorest among us usually bury their anger. For someone working two jobs, it’s a waste of necessary time. For haven’t those without power — and money is power — always been either exploited and/or blithely ignored by those who have? After several generations of lowly status within the larger more fortunate group, combined with the daily contrivances of basic survival, they have forgotten they have a voice.

Attacks upon trade unions within the last 30 years have contributed to their lack of power. Government subsidies in various forms, doled out at just the level to keep body and soul, but without much incentive toward further progress, have further cinched it.

Revolutions, from the beginnings of our own in 1776, the French in 1789, up through the Civil Rights marches, the Vietnam protests and this most recent, occupied with occupying Wall Street, are most always initiated by the middle class. The poor, unless incited by a direct assault on their survival, are most often silent. Provoked by injustice, the middle class usually is not.

It was a mistake for the British to attempt to press more taxes upon the planters and businessmen in the American colonies. It was a mistake to draft young men in college in the 1960s whose grades fell below a C average, although the great majority of those who served in Vietnam were recruited from the inner city and the farms. And it was a huge mistake to continue to cut taxes upon the very well-off, as thousands of college graduates, burdened with education debt, are unemployed or laid off.

Group with resources

Compared with the very poor, the middle class has resources: education and an innate sense of their civil rights. They are articulate. They own sleeping bags and tents. Although they are by no means suffering the worst, they have lost both money and status. As in times past, their voices are the ones that will be heard. But there is a great potential within that bottom 33 percent.

“Power to the people,” as they used to say. For within the people, those silent, rarely complaining sorts who bag your groceries, clean your office, cut your grass, clean your house and cook your food, there is intelligence. And there is anger, even if suppressed. There is also an innate sense of justice, even if their words do not fall trippingly off the tongue. Politically they are sleeping. But they also are eligible to vote.

Occupy Wall Street might look beyond their encampment, further afield — the working poor, no strangers to hardship, steady in their devotion to their children, to their aging relatives, to their beaten dreams.

Their humanity is identical to those now angry and convening. Their difference lies in their despair. They most certainly belong within the 99%.

Wake them up. Do we dare?

Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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