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How Millions in America Get Entrenched in Poverty

An inside look at the system that's producing America's growing underclass.

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Increasingly, however, large numbers of Americans do seem to be troubled by the political elite’s acceptance of wholesale poverty as a normal part of contemporary life. Members of the overwhelming majority—the much-touted 99 percent—who haven’t benefited from this epic economic change are realizing the plutocratic implications of this shift. “We’re all out here and we all get it,” said 26-year-old Thomas Reges, one of the Occupy D.C. protesters camped out in the capital’s MacPherson Square, in October 2011. “We’re all angry. We all know something is wrong, and we’re trying to make it better.”

That month, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, an NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll found 37 percent of Americans supported the protests, and only 18 percent opposed them, with the remaining 45 percent presumably neutral. A couple of weeks later, a CBS News/ New York Times poll found that 43 percent of Americans sympathized with the protests. Other polls during this period found that more than six out of every ten Americans believed the economic system was rigged in favor of the wealthy; three-quarters felt that things were getting better for Wall Street CEOs but not for ordinary middle-class Americans, and a majority of the population believed that economic inequality was a bigger problem than government overregulation. Sizeable majorities also supported the notion that the administration should pursue policies intended to reduce economic inequality. This was subsequently reinforced by exit polling on November 6, 2012, showing that most voters favored raising taxes on the wealthy to help deal with the country’s burgeoning deficits.

When the American Bankers Association held its annual conference in Chicago in 2009, several thousand protesters descended on the event. Three years later, groups such as National People’s Action, run by a longtime organizer named George Goehl, trained large numbers of people in what they termed “economic civil disobedience”: Protesters would attend shareholder meetings and demand that their economic grievances be heard; often, they engaged in sitdown protests and sometimes blockades.

For many of the protesters, the economic crisis, and the ways in which large banks treated small borrowers, had catalyzed a political response that they didn’t know they previously had in them.

Barb Kalbach, for example, was a retired farmer who, in the years following the 2008 collapse, joined an activist group called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, began devoting much of her time to protesting economic injustice, and ultimately embarked on campaigns of civil disobedience aimed at putting a spotlight on corporate malfeasance around mortgage foreclosures and other themes. “We ask to meet people like Jamie Dimon [CEO of JPMorgan Chase],” Kalbach explained. “They ignore us, like we are riffraff. That’s when we go forward; we go to their places. I call it ‘Going to see the person who doesn’t want to see you.’” An unlikely direct-action advocate, the elderly farmer had had enough. In all good conscience, she felt she simply couldn’t do nothing. Her aim, she declared, was to shine light, and now to get corporations to change their tactics.

We’re trying to get the lawmakers to see that what’s happened out in America isn’t right, that corporations can’t walk all over people. It’s like a pie, and they’re pulling all the money they can out of the pie. The homes were a pie, pensions and 401(k)s, that was a pie. They robbed us, and then they took a taxpayers’ bailout. Money and power and wealth is being pulled out of America into fewer and fewer hands. It’s the same way with wages and salaries and benefits—it’s a part of a pie.

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