And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: The downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99 percent first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.
In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60 percent of American firms now check applicants' credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Failure to pay government-imposed fines or fees can even lead, through a concatenation of unlucky breaks, to an arrest warrant or a criminal record. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.
Making Sense of the 99 Percent
The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99 percent's growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people—we may never know the exact numbers—from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water, or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities.
General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers, and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99 percent, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.
Can the unity cultivated in the encampments survive as the Occupy movement evolves into a more decentralized phase? All sorts of class, racial, and cultural divisions persist within that 99 percent, including distrust between members of the former "liberal elite" and those less privileged. It would be surprising if they didn't. The life experience of a young lawyer or a social worker is very different from that of a blue-collar worker whose work may rarely allow for biological necessities like meal or bathroom breaks. Drum circles, consensus decision-making, and masks remain exotic to at least the 90 percent. "Middle class" prejudice against the homeless, fanned by decades of right-wing demonization of the poor, retains much of its grip.
Sometimes these differences led to conflict in Occupy encampments—for example, over the role of the chronically homeless in Portland or the use of marijuana in Los Angeles—but amazingly, despite all the official warnings about health and safety threats, there was no "Altamont moment": no major fires and hardly any violence. In fact, the encampments engendered almost unthinkable convergences: people from comfortable backgrounds learning about street survival from the homeless, a distinguished professor of political science discussing horizontal versus vertical decision-making with a postal worker, military men in dress uniforms showing up to defend the occupiers from the police.
Class happens, as Thompson said, but it happens most decisively when people are prepared to nourish and build it. If the "99 percent" is to become more than a stylish meme, if it's to become a force to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront some of the class and racial divisions that lie within it. But we need to do so patiently, respectfully, and always with an eye to the next big action—the next march, or building occupation, or foreclosure fight, as the situation demands.
Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch regular, is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (now in a 10th-anniversary edition with a new afterword).
John Ehrenreich is professor of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He wrote The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers.
This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print at the Nation magazine. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.