Off Our Backs, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib
In the coming weeks, millions of Americans will take to the streets
as part of the "99 percent spring," echoing last year's "Arab Spring."
At the root of this discontent are the extreme inequalities of
income, wealth, and opportunity that have emerged over the last four
The richest 1 percent now owns over 36 percent of all the wealth in
the United States. That's more than the net worth of the bottom 95
percent combined. This 1 percent has pocketed almost all of the wealth
gains of the last decade.
In 2010, the 1 percent earned 21 percent of all income, up from only 8
percent in mid-1970s. The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.
These trends among the 1 percent are bad for the rest of us.
Concentrated wealth translates into political clout -- the power to use
campaign contributions to rent politicians and tilt the rules of the
economy in their favor.
Websites dramatizing the "We are the 99 percent" movement are full of
personal stories of young people who are saddled with debt and no
futures, and middle class families that have seen the American Dream
collapse around them, losing jobs, homes, and hopes for the future.
"I used to dream about becoming the first woman president," one woman
wrote. "Now I dream about getting a job with health insurance."
Reading these stories, I'm struck that the underlying conditions that
have squeezed millions of Americans aren't going away. The current
political system, captured by large corporations and the wealthy, is
incapable of responding to their needs.
The "99 to 1" dichotomy may strike some folks as polarizing and
inaccurate. Yet it's a powerful lens for understanding what's happened
to our society and economy over the last several decades. The rules
guiding our economy have been skewed to benefit the 1 percent at the
expense of the 99 percent. These rules include tax policies, global
trade agreements, and government actions that benefit asset owners at
the expense of wage earners.
Who is the "1 percent"? Primarily it consists of households with
annual incomes that top $500,000 and wealth exceeding $5 million. The 1
percent isn't a monolithic interest group. Plenty of people within this
group have devoted their lives to building a healthy economy that works
for everyone. But there's a small segment within the 1 percent -- the
"rule riggers" -- who use their power and wealth to influence the
political game so that they and their corporations get more power and
Just as individuals in the 1 percent are diverse actors, the 1
percent of corporations is also not unified. There are several thousand
multinational corporations -- the Wall Street inequality machine -- that
are the drivers of rule changes. But they are the minority. There are
millions of other built-to-last corporations and Main Street businesses
that strengthen our communities and have a stake in an economy that
works for everyone.
We must defend ourselves from the bad actors -- the built-to-loot
companies whose business model is focused on shifting costs onto
society, shedding jobs, and extracting wealth from our communities and
the healthy economy.
This spring, watch for millions of people in motion, participating in
protests at banks, outside lawmakers' offices, and in the streets.
They'll be pressing for an economy that works for the 100 percent, not
just the 1 percent. This is a healthy sign for our nation because it
dramatizes that the people aren't powerless in the face of extreme