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Hannah Matthews's picture

Protestors rallying on Wall Street are making news as much for the 700 arrests that happened last weekend as they are for being a nascent movement without a clearly defined vision.

Participants say they are protesting a host of things, from lack of opportunity and jobs, to Wall Street excess and economic inequality. Who knows whether the movement will flame or sizzle, but as of now it’s picking up steam and additional rallies have occurred or are planned in Boston, Washington D.C. and Chicago, Seattle, and other cities.

These rallies and underlying reasons for them have made us think more about growing economic inequality, high unemployment and overall feelings of financial insecurity. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage. The data revealed that the percent of people living in poverty climbed to 15.1 percent in 2010, the highest percentage since 1993 and the greatest number of people (46.2 million) since the Bureau began keeping track.

A less-publicized but telling figure is the near 34 percent of people (103.6 million) who are low-income, or living in, near or marginally above poverty. These are families with household income less than twice the federal poverty threshold, which is widely accepted as a more accurate measure of what it takes to make ends meet in a basic family budget. In other words, one in three people struggle to get by, juggle expenses to keep the heat and the lights on, and can’t afford to save money or send their kids to college. Many are just one job loss or other unforeseen financial setback away from poverty. Overall, the Census found that median household income is shrinking, causing families to do more with less.

The Wall Street protests aren’t about low-income families or poverty, but they expose the far reach of economic insecurity in this country and bring to light the need for sounder policies to ensure more people have access to opportunities and resources that help ensure a greater level of financial stability and family economic wellbeing. Collectively, we have yet to agree that growing economic inequality and poverty are urgent social issues that must be addressed.

It is far more expedient to ignore hardships faced by low-income people and blame the poor for being poor than it is to ask deeper questions about how to improve opportunities for more people to move up the economic ladder. Yet with one in three of our neighbors living in low-income households, we can’t continue to punt the question.

Although many of those rallying are ostensibly middle class and talking about concerns such as having college degrees, mounds of student debt, poor job prospects, and no money for extras, their protest is far more universal.  They want a stable future with jobs that pay a living wage and knowledge that they live in a country that is growing, not one in which wealth and opportunity are increasingly concentrated among a small subset of the population.

Such a future will not exist without real investments from government in our nation, our people and our communities.   We are faced with a decision—is it better to invest in bridges that are falling, or corporations “too big to fail”?  Will we leave more children behind because we are loathe to tax a billionaire?  Will we help more families pay for a college education or will we continue to cut spending on schools and teachers?

The rallies on Wall Street and in other cities mark an important moment and reflect widespread discontent. The public is speaking. It’s up to lawmakers to listen and make policy choices that will benefit the masses as well as boost the nation’s economy in the long-term.

Jenice R. Robinson, communications director at CLASP, co-wrote this blog.

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