When walking in downtown Manhattan, one may notice a peculiar smell. If one ventures down past City Hall, past the boarded up and closed off grounds of the World Trade Center, a deep-seated, inexorable odor manifests itself within city life. The source of the smell? Occupy Wall Street protesters, idling their hours in the streets and parks of New York.
When examining why Occupy Wall Street protesters would give up their lives and luxuries, trading homes for plastic tents and sleeping bags, the answer appears simple: they are protesting income disparities between the rich and the poor. Yet many wonder whether this is actually an issue or simply a byproduct of capitalism; further, why this is an issue now, rather than ten or twenty years in the past. However, when one looks to the numbers, the severity of United States wealth gaps becomes abhorrently clear. From 1993 to 2006, America’s wealthiest 1percent received half of national income growth, and in 2006, they made almost a fifth of the nation’s pre-tax income.Looking to a larger sample size than the top 1 percent, the average ratio of a CEO’s income to a worker’s income in 2000 was 1039 to 1. Essentially, American wage disparities have been aggravated far beyond those of a purely capitalist society or meritocracy; relative lack of social mobility and the importance of inherited wealth only exacerbate the socioeconomic plights of the lower and middle classes.
While national policy could easily counteract the perpetually expanding income inequalities, legislative inefficiencies and strong political opposition slow progress. For every reform that is passed, many obstacles stand in the way of progress. For instance, while the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act made significant progress, Congress has two dozen bills actively attempting to nullify parts of the Act; more importantly, the status quo has seen no significant change stemming from the Act, disparities rather continuing to increase. Part of the lack of government progress may be attributed to the officials themselves, affluent citizens caught in a conflict of interest. Regardless, the difficulty that the lower classes have in accessing government not only impedes on their ability to enact reforms, but also hurts their most fundamental rights in a democratic society.
The most fundamental right a citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote and influence government. Yet income disparities give the rich a disproportionate say in politics, hurting both the wellbeing of the poor and the integrity of America as a democracy. American politics creates a harsh cycle of wealth; at its origin, only the rich can succeed in government. This is largely due to the large financial burdens incurred by campaigning. The average Senate campaign in 2010 cost over 8 million, while the average House campaign was over 1.1 million. Meanwhile, incumbent Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign is projected to reach 1 billion dollars. Yet candidates who cannot afford to run for office are also denied fundraising help from campaign vendors. These vendors, when choosing clients to fund, fear being stuck with debts from losing or retired politicians who cannot afford to repay incurred campaign costs. Therefore, they calculate the “deadbeat factor” into their decision of who to fund, only picking clients who can afford to repay debts out of their own pockets: namely, million- and billionaires., The significance of the poor being refused campaign funding is projected by the Center for Responsive Politics’ findings that campaign financing matters: since 2000, the candidate with higher campaign expenditures in House races has won in 86 percent of elections. Thus, the rich disproportionately gain access to government due to their wealth.
Once elected, the affluent use their power to trade democratic integrity for money. First, the revolving door between government and lobbying gives powerful special interests extreme say in policy. Since 1998, almost 80 percent of former Congressmen have acted as lobbyists, giving lobbyists special connections to government. But the Center for Economic Performance found that lobbyists with past experience working for a Senator underwent a 24 percent revenue drop when that Senator left office, indicating unjust profits from the revolving door. Not only do Senators use their political influence to benefit wealthy lobbyists and special interest groups, but they also use nonpublic information to supplement their own pockets. From 1985 to 2001, the stock portfolios of House representatives have outperformed the market by 6.6 percent annually, while those of Senate members have outperformed by 10 percent annually. Thus, affluent politicians engage in corrupt practices, devastating the moral integrity of the United States government and promoting the interests of wealthy lobbyists over the public good.
Money does not solely influence politics from the inside; the wealthy outside of government also hold great influence. Billionaires Charles and David Koch have spent 28.4 million dollars producing 297 commentaries, 200 reports, 56 studies, six books, and spending millions lobbying for issues including social security cuts. By creating an echo chamber of their personal political ideologies and stances, key issues are publicized until they gain both household and political recognition. For example, the Koch media caused the AARP, previously a champion of sustained Social Security, to consider cuts to the program.} As of November 2011, social security cuts that would potentially reduce citizen benefits by 112 billion dollars were “gaining momentum in Congress,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. Although these issues are gaining stamina in Washington, 92 percent of the public still opposes major cuts, thus showing the unadulterated power of wealth.
Beyond government influence, income disparities also have significant impacts on the criminal justice system, leading to disproportionate imprisonment of the poor. Often living under circumstances where crime is necessary for survival, or in environments where crime is a standard part of life, the poor have a forced yet natural disposition toward crime. The Center for American Progress found that because the poor are pushed into tough circumstances under high stress and low pay, 40 percent of annual crime can be attributed to poverty.
However, even when committing the same crimes, the poor are more likely to be imprisoned than the middle class. This is explained first by economic biases. The New York Times reported that due to targeted frisking of the poor, the chances of being arrested for marijuana were 150 times greater in Brownsville, a public housing neighborhood, than on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Also, American University professor Jeffrey Reiman explains that judges and jurors are often influenced by the “fundamental attribution error:” the assumption that crimes committed by the poor are due to their dispositions, while those committed by the rich are due to their situations. Such stereotypes therefore increase both arrests and convictions of the poor. Secondly, the affluent can afford bail and private attorneys, while the poor get overworked public defenders. Yale University’s Jonathan Casper found that public defenders, on average spend five to ten minutes with clients, strategizing pleas bargains instead of defenses. By assuming the poor are guilty, the right to an innocent plea is denied. The poor are thus mandated punishment at higher rates, both stripping them of their freedom and also inflicting long-term harms. Ex-convicts must give up crucial rights, including the right to serve on a jury; to vote in certain states; to get welfare, social security, retirement, health, disability, or public housing benefits; and more, thus threatening the equality and freedom of the poor.
In scholarly discussions and research, poverty and imprisonment are often accompanies by a third malady of society: health care. The rich are less likely to fall seriously ill, a fact oft overlooked due to the fact that the poor often do not seek health attention in the first place. However, they are also disproportionately likely to have forms of health care, allowing them to afford treatment. Hence, the issue of both health and health care is reflected in income disparities, and can be especially seen in the case of HIV/AIDS among the poor. The Harvard School of Public Health found that in Massachusetts, AIDS was seven times more prevalent in areas where over 40 percent of the population lived below the poverty line than in areas with less than 2 percent. This can be explained by a plethora of factors, from increased intravenous drug use to prostitution to incarceration. However, the Rand Foundation reported that 72 percent of HIV patients have incomes under $25,000 per year while the annual cost of HIV/AIDS medication is $25,200, according to Medical Care. In other words, treatment costs more than the incomes of three quarters of patients, costs of living aside; treatment is thus rendered impossible when considering that the poor often lack health care; in 2010, over 42 percent of those below the poverty line lacked coverage. Those who can’t access treatment deny it: in southern states alone, over half of people who know they are HIV positive choose not to receive the minimum level of treatment. Yet untreated HIV holds a 90 percent death rate, with a lifespan of under 10 years. The disproportionate death and disease rates of the poor therefore threaten the right to life, else crush the poor under massive health care debts.
Thus, the income disparities of the status quo have grown far beyond the their capitalist and meritocratic ideals. Rather than supporting an equality of opportunity, the current wealth gaps serve to put political influence solely in the hands of the affluent, while simultaneously threatening the equality, freedom, and lives of the poor. The next time you walk through downtown Manhattan, the next time you smell the stench that is civil disobedience, greet the Occupy Wall Street protesters and consider yourself among brothers. Together, we are the 99%.
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Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School