A lot has been going on three blocks from the NASW-NYC office at Zuccotti Park, located at Liberty Street between Broadway and Church Street, since the middle of September. At its core it is an encampment of protesters but has also become a destination for support demonstrations, including a recent 10,000 person march of union members, community groups and ordinary New Yorkers.
Inspired by the Wall St. protest, similar encampments have been springing up in cities throughout the country including San Francisco, Washington, DC, Seattle and Los Angeles. It is common for the media to ignore demonstrations, even when they are massive, so it is noteworthy that they are paying attention.
According to the website, www.occupywallst.org, Occupy Wall Street “is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions.” As stated on the site, “The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1% . . .”.
What exactly the objectives are may depend on who is being quoted or what news coverage is reflecting, but it is reasonable to discern that the demonstrators are determined to hold financial institutions and corporations, as symbolized by the phrase “Wall Street”, accountable for the current financial crisis that began in 2008 and the growing economic inequality in the United States.
While there are likely to be differences about the best way to seek change, there can be little doubt that many Americans, and New Yorkers more specifically, share the concerns of the protesters about the impact of the economy on individuals and families, the lack of accountability for the crisis, and the prospect of any beneficial change in the near future.
For social workers, the worsening economic conditions of the past three years have only added to the significant challenges faced by the communities that the profession serves. Whether explicitly articulated by Occupy Wall Street or not, the following 10 points reflect common realities that the protesters, New York’s communities, and the social work profession have collectively experienced:
1. The country has been experiencing the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression in the 1930s, caused in part by extraordinarily risky investment practices that put major financial institutions at risk of collapse, with world-wide impact.
2. The federal government has been far more willing to bail out the financial sector than to help low income people and a vulnerable middle class. Attempts to tighten regulations on risky investments are being resisted by the financial sector and by many in Congress.
3. The United States has engaged in two enormously costly wars in the Middle East without raising revenues to pay for them. The total cost over the past 10 years has been estimated at $2.5 trillion.
4. The President and Congress agreed to cut $2.5 trillion in programs over the next 10 years, with more cuts being considered. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other important social programs are being targeted.
5. We now have the highest poverty level in US since 1993, with 46.2 million people living in poverty in 2010, or 15% of the population. This is up from 11.7% in 2000. In New York City the poverty rate is 20%.
6. Unemployment in the US is over 9%, and this number is much higher when those who have given up looking for a job is considered. Joblessness wreaks havoc on individuals and families, both economically and in terms of mental health, including the experience of sustained stress and depression.
7. New York’s lawmakers passed a budget in the Spring that includes $10 billion in cuts that fall disproportionately on low income communities, including a $2.85 billion reduction in Medicaid. Proposals to raise significant revenues through taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers were rejected.
8. Nationally, health insurance premiums rose 9% in the past year in spite of passing a national health reform law, a law that assures higher profits for insurance companies. The number of uninsured is now 49.9 million.
9. The principles of democracy are undermined by the influence of corporate wealth in the political arena, resulting in both major parties being dependent on their contributions, making the possibility of significant change less likely to come from electoral politics (as important as this is). That the US Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of unlimited corporate spending on campaigns is further evidence of the threat to electoral democracy.
10. The social work profession itself is at risk as services and social work jobs are cutback for communities that are suffering from the current economic conditions. Given the current state of politics today, with a focus on cutbacks with no new revenue, the social work profession will be significantly challenged while the need for services increases.
The bottom line for us is that the real needs of people are not being addressed. And there are a lot more issues involved than what has been enumerated above.
There come times when protest and demonstrations play a critical role when other institutions are not up to the task, as evidenced by what has been unfolding across the Middle East. If Occupy Wall Street continues, it can prove to be a valuable moment for our future.
Social workers will make their own decisions as to whether to join with the protestors and the demonstrations that may continue. Demonstrations carry certain risks, even when the intention is to be peaceful, but those risks are often necessary to seek change.
Please weigh in with what you see happening with these issues and Occupy Wall Street. Share with us if you have participated and please send us any photos you may have taken. Please email to them us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a slideshow of pictures submitted by a member. Please feel free to submit your pictures!