Occupy Wall Street, a year old on Monday, has lost momentum. Yet new data underline how real incomes for the US middle class are going down. More than inequality itself, that is a good reason to want change. Oddly, though, neither Occupy nor the Tea Party — both protest movements that despite differences represent ordinary Americans — has grabbed what could be a defining issue.
Dozens of Occupy activists were arrested in Manhattan’s financial district on the anniversary of protests that triggered a national debate about inequality. Such headlines aside, however, Occupy’s ability to sustain the discussion has dwindled, not helped by its lack of focus. Talking about the unfairness of inequality is hard to square with a US tradition of reward for effort. And, finger-pointing over the 2008 financial crisis combined with sundry left-leaning social gripes muddied the group’s message, too.
The slide in real median household income, however, should present the ideal rallying cry. New analysis of census data, published on September 12, showed the American family right in the statistical middle of the income range making a hair over $50,000 last year, 8.1 per cent less after accounting for inflation than in 2007. Even that year, after four years of an economic boom, median income didn’t regain the 1999 peak.
If it’s odd that Occupy hasn’t staked out this ground, it’s equally strange that the Tea Party hasn’t. Politically at the other end of the spectrum, part of the motivation for the group that emerged in 2009 must have been the same feeling of a squeeze on ordinary families.
The solutions differ, of course: Occupy’s solution is a populist version of the relatively free-spending Keynesian beliefs of the liberal elite, while the Tea Party’s is a homespun interpretation of the Austrian School of economic austerity favoured on the right. But the problem is shared.
Both Occupy and the Tea Party serve as ginger groups within their respective political circles. The latter seems to have been more effective so far. But either one could build a simpler and more appealing platform for political change. Income decline in the middle ranks, even amid economic growth, is a strikingly clear signal that the policy formulas of the last decade or more are not working.