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What They’re Yelling About on Wall Street
YCteen staff

In the video above, young activists explain what motivated them to participate in the Occupy Wall Street protest. In our second video Online Activism vs. In-Person Protest they explain why taking it to the streets still matters.

For the past three weeks, something unusual has been happening near Wall Street. People have been camping out, protesting, exchanging ideas, and talking to the media. They’re in Manhattan’s financial district, near the New York Stock Exchange and some of the world’s richest companies.

The protesters are part of a group called “Occupy Wall Street.” It was originally made up of just a few dozen people led by a Canadian activist organization called Adbusters. Occupy Wall Street has rapidly expanded. Several influential labor unions and many individuals from all over the country have joined in. The police used pepper spray on some protesters and arrested others, which drew increased media attention and new waves of supporters. On Wednesday, October 5, an estimated 10,000 people joined in a march from City Hall to Wall Street. Reporters from Youth Communication's two magazines, YCteen and Represent, were there to cover it with video and photographs. The movement has also spread to other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Portland.

What are these protests all about? At first, the media made it seem like Occupy Wall Street was a disorganized group lacking a unified message. And it’s true that people have joined the cause for many reasons. But it’s clear that the protesters’ main message is that American businesses and government favor the rich. It’s hard for average citizens to find financial security or to be heard.

Who Should Sacrifice?

One of the big debates in U.S. politics right now is whether the very wealthy (people who make over a million dollars a year) should pay more taxes. On one side of this debate are those who look at our national debt of $1.5 trillion and say, “Those who have made the most money in this land of opportunity should do more to help solve the problem.” At least, they say, we should return to the tax rates that applied to the very wealthy under President Bill Clinton. (Tax cuts approved by President George W. Bush, which helped make the debt this large, are still in place.) If we returned to the tax rates of 2000, someone making a million dollars a year would owe $32,493 more in taxes annually than they do now. That’s a lot of money, but it leaves plenty left over.

On the other side are those who say it’s a bad idea to tax the rich more. Some of them think the rich deserve what they get, and it’s just unfair to tax them. They also argue that big businesses and wealthy people create jobs. If they were taxed more, this argument goes, they would have less money to spend on creating jobs and paying workers. To reduce the national debt, they say, cut government spending on things like health care, education, and unemployment benefits.

Most economists do not agree with this argument. Slightly higher taxes do not curb job growth. And cutting government spending during a recession can make it worse. Nonetheless, this year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a budget that included $4.5 trillion in such spending cuts over the next decade.

Whether you’re a family of three or a nation of 300 million, being in deep debt means sacrifices will be required to turn the financial situation around. The debate about raising taxes and cutting spending mostly comes down to the question of who should make the sacrifices. Raising taxes on the wealthy asks them to sacrifice something. When we cut government spending, usually it’s the middle class and the poor who lose out.

Rich Getting Richer

The experience of the past three decades suggests that more money for the rich doesn’t automatically bring jobs or prosperity to everyone else. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Back in the 1970s, only a few top executives earned more than 30 times what their lower-level workers earned. Nowadays, the leaders of major U.S. corporations make about 263 times what the average American worker earns. Meanwhile, we suffered the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the unemployment rate is 9.1%.

image by Autumn Spanne

How can this be? For one thing, big companies are holding on to their cash, rather than investing it in job creation. This month, the U.S. Federal Reserve reported that U.S. businesses had record cash on their books—over $2 trillion. Big businesses have also taken advantage of “globalization” by moving jobs from the United States to other countries where labor is cheaper. (You don’t have to pay a worker in India nearly as much as a worker in the U.S., because of the lower cost of living and fewer protections for workers there.) Meanwhile, corporate taxes cover much less of the government’s costs than they used to. Back in the 1940s, the federal government raised $1.50 in taxes on business profits for every $1 it raised in taxes on individuals. Today, for every $1 the federal government gets from individuals, it gets only 25 cents from businesses.

In the past 40 years, corporations have grown and the people who run them have grown richer. But the middle and lower classes have not benefited. The Occupy Wall Street protestors are upset by this growing “income gap” and by a lot of other problems they see in the United States today. They point out that the Wall Street businesses that helped create the economic recession are the ones who are suffering least from it. For example, big banks helped cause the crisis by getting people to take out loans they couldn’t afford. They are doing well now partly because the government gave them a “bailout” – lots of tax money – to save their businesses from collapse when the loans weren’t repaid. Many of the protesters call themselves “the other 99%” on signs and in chants. This refers to the fact that about 40% of the nation’s wealth and about 25% of income is controlled by just the richest 1% of the population.

Locked Out

Many of the protesters are also angry about the role of money in politics. A recent Supreme Court decision gave corporations much more freedom to give money to political candidates, even in secret. Some signs downtown read: “I Can’t Afford to $peak With My Representative” and “Get Your Money Out of My Government.” A lot of protestors are upset with President Obama, who hired powerful business leaders to run the economy even though their companies had brought about the economic crash of 2008.

Why should teens care? More than one out of every five Americans under 18 lives below the poverty line. Many more live in families that are above the poverty line, but have little hope of paying for college or other training necessary to get a good job. Here at Youth Communication, we’ve often written about the issues the Occupy Wall Street movement highlights. Check out some of our archived stories for a deeper understanding of the issues that led to the protest:

In “The Rags to Riches Myth,” Marco Salazar described how his immigrant father, despite years of hard work, continues to live precariously close to poverty.

Diana Moreno wrote about the shame of being on welfare and her intention to “untangle” herself from it in “Getting By on Crayon Money.”

In “A Roof of One's Own” Quotesia Johnson examined how economic crisis pushes people with the least money into homelessness.

Now, we’d like to hear from you: What do you think about the growing income inequality? Should we raise taxes on the rich? Do you feel that regular people can get heard by politicians? Should the government do something to help out people who are struggling financially? If so, how? Or is the deficit more important than funding government programs? Should taxes be kept low, and programs cut to make up the difference?

E-mail us your thoughts at ycteenmail@youthcomm.org or representmail@youthcomm.org.

Sources: CNN Money; National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan; Institute for Policy Studies; Newark Star-Ledger; guardian.co.uk

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