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Personal Experiences With Economic Hardship Spurred Occupy Wall Street Movement

First-ever representative profile of the movement that gave us the 1% and the 99% shows that underemployment, student debt and job loss sparked action


By: Joseph F. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies

NEW YORK CITY January 29, 2013 - Direct experiences with economic hardship inspired many of the participants in NewYork City's Occupy Wall Street to join the movement, according to the first-ever representative survey of Occupy.

Nearly 40 percent of Occupy Wall Street protesters carried student loans of more than $1,000 and almost 30 percent of them had lost a job in the previous five years, the Russell SageFoundation-funded study by sociologists Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, of the City University of New York's Murphy Institute, shows. Among Occupiers younger than 30, nearly 54 percent had student debt that topped $1,000, while 37 percent had lost a job in the last five years.

Underemployment brought on by the Great Recession also plagued Occupiers. Almost one-quarter of employed respondents reported working lessthan 35 hours a week. The figure was even higher for those under 30 years old, with 29 percent working less than 35 hours a week. And among respondents who were "actively involved," 33 percent worked fewer than 35 hours a week.

"Many participants had a personal connection to the economic crisis that helped spur the Occupy movement," said Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute. "You had people graduating from high school and college, only to find that the economy wasn't working for them."

The study confirms that many Occupiers faced the economic struggles affecting the current generation of college graduates as a whole: a labor market that is as harsh as its been since the Great Depression and debt levels that have soared to historic heights. And instead of finding the kinds of professional opportunities they aspired to after graduating, many end up in unpaid or poorly paid internships or at best in economically precarious jobs for which they are often overqualified.

"It was the 26 to 29 or 30 crowd that was the strongest in terms of presence—people my age, who…had just blazed through college and a Master's program and then were like, ‘What the hell is this?'" Occupy activist Sandy Nurse told the researchers.

The results of the study were released Tuesday in the report Changing the Subject: A Bottom-up Account ofOccupy Wall Street in New York City. To produce the report, the researcherssurveyed 729 protesters at a May 1, 2012 march and rally in New York City, where Occupy got its start, and conducted extensive interviews with 25 people who were core activists in the movement.

In fielding the survey, the researchers used a sampling method developed and widely deployed in Europe for the study of large protest demonstrations to obtain a representative sampling of participants. Their research provides the most systematic demographic snapshot of the protest that burst into public view in the fall of 2011 andelevated the issue of economic inequality to the top of the nation's political debate.

Participants in the May 1 march and rally were disproportionately highly educated, young, white and politically active. Many had participated in previous rallies, with 42% indicating they had attended 30 or more protests in their lifetimes, the survey showed.

Income Inequality Topped Protesters' List of Concerns

While personal experiences with underemployment, debt, and job loss spurred Occupiers' involvement in the movement, the report shows that deep concerns with the nation's widening income gap also inspired their participation. Nearly half of the survey participants said that income inequality led them to support Occupy Wall Street. The role of money in politics was the next-most-significant motivator, with more than one-quarter of respondents indicating it led to their involvement. Other issues that attracted people to Occupy included corporate greed, student debt, labor rights, health care, and unemployment, the survey found.

Additionally, most Occupy activists and supporters were deeply skeptical of the mainstream political system as an effective vehicle for social change. Many had become disenchanted with President Obama, especially protesters under 30, as the change they expected after his election in 2008 failed to materialize. Between 2008 and2012 there was a stark drop off in both voting for Obama and actively campaigning for him among protesters. For example, 85% of survey respondents under 30 voted for Obama in 2008, but only 63% said they planned to vote for him last November.

Occupy's Lasting Effects

The report shows that Occupy has both a pre-history and an enduring impact. It has roots in earlier social movements, and, post-occupation, the issues it focused on and the distinctive form it assumed continue to affect the political landscape. While Occupy may have faded from daily headlines after the protesters' eviction from Zuccotti Park, the issues it sparked and the activism it inspired remain very much alive.

"Many protestors were deeply radicalized by their participation in Occupy and will likely continue on a life path that includes progressive political activism," said Stephanie Luce, associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute.

Evidence that Occupy endures is steadily mounting. Occupy Sandy organized thousands of volunteers to address the urgent needs created October's Superstorm, and the Rolling Jubilee organized by the Occupy offshoot "Strike Debt" has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy up and forgive debt. Other former Occupiers are engaged in the anti-fracking movement, fighting foreclosures, organizing low-wage workers, and more.

"Not only did Occupy succeed in focusing the national political conversation on economic inequality, it also gave birth to a new generation of activists with a political vision and collective identity that will guide them for the rest of their lives," said Penny Lewis, assistant professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute. "Much like those who came of age politically in the 1960s and kept their worldview after the movement faded, the effects of Occupy will reverberate for years to come."


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