The Occupy Movement changed the national policy debate last year, but then its supporters dispersed or – more accurately – were driven out of public parks by the police and winter.
A different kind of occupation has occurred, almost unnoticed, in Los Angeles over the last few weeks.
In late September, thousands of Californians waited in long lines at the Sports Arena in downtown Los Angeles for free medical and dental care provided by Care Harbor, a local non-profit organization. About 6.9 million Californians don’t have health insurance: about 1 in 5. They are not only the poor; about 27% of families making $50,000 or more each year are uninsured. Skyrocketing insurance rates, higher deductibles and dwindling benefits have left many in the middle class without insurance – or greatly under-insured, so that an unexpected illness or root canal can have a devastating financial impact. Thanks to the Financial Debacle, credit cards aren’t much of a fall back anymore. Hence the 3,754 patients, many of whom showed up three days early, grateful to receive the attention of thousands of doctors, dentists and other volunteering medical professionals, even if that meant being treated among strangers in a massive hall with no privacy. The sponsors of the event, now in its fourth year, call it a “health fair.”
A week later and a few miles north, the line began forming early around the Convention Center, where more thousands hoped for a chance to refinance their mortgages in order to keep their homes. The five day event – part of a national tour it calls “Save the Dream”– was sponsored by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, another non-profit that has stepped into the breach opened by the failure of the marketplace. Operating in triage-like conditions in the conference hall, it arranged refinancing for beleaguered homeowners, many of whom were the victims of predatory lending, who would otherwise face foreclosure.
Monikers like “Health fair” or “Save the Dream” create a comforting, almost festive feeling about these occasions. But they can’t mask the despairing situation many of our fellow Americans now find themselves in.
The images of people seeking help with basic necessities – medical care, a place to live – reminded me of the breadlines of the Depression era, before the social safety net was put in place by FDR. The cavernous venues themselves recalled a more dire moment: the gruesome pictures from the New Orleans Superdome in 2005, to which residents were evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, and there left to fend for themselves for days. “I’ve seen things,” NBC News anchor Brian William said of his time inside that nightmare, “I never thought I’d see in the United States.”
The Occupy Wall Street supporters and their local affiliates across the nation were loud and angry enough to get the news media’s attention. A few instances of police brutality certainly helped. For all the many things the Occupy movement subsequently failed to do, like create a political force that could have been deployed in national and local election campaigns, just pointing out the wealth disparity – the 1% versus the 99% – vectored public attention from the abstraction of the national deficit to the concrete pocketbook issue of the imbalance of power between the powerful and everyone else.
But there was relatively little news coverage of the quiet, peaceful members of the 99-percent encircled around arenas that usually cater to business meetings or sports, people whose life stories have been derailed by credit default swaps, derivatives and other shenanigans by speculators over which they had no control.
Wall Street got it’s stimulus package – an estimated $29 trillion bailout, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, in the form of cash infusions, tax breaks, and the ability to borrow at an almost zero interest rate from the Federal Reserve. But Main Street’s stimulus package was $700 million – demonstrably not enough to do the job of getting Americans back in their jobs.
Compare the two stimulus packages and explain to me why we can’t afford to address the plight of job-less, home-less and savings-less Americans.
The total debt owed by consumers in this country for loans and credit cards is roughly $12 trillion, according to the latest report. Every dollar of it could have been erased (including everyone’s mortgage debt!) if those trillion$ had gone to taxpayers instead of Wall Street, as I’ve pointed out previously. Imagine the powerful spending effect on the economy if Americans were given the right to borrow from the Fed at the same low rate that the banks do. Or if someone in Congress or the White House had thought to impose a modest cap on interest rates for consumers as a quid pro quo for the bailout money that went to those firms.
Wall Street and its allies in government have tried to diminish the significance of the bailout, noting that most banks and other corporate beneficiaries have repaid most of the money. But that’s not the right way to gauge the value of what the taxpayers did for them.
Say two people are in a boat when it capsizes. One of them, the captain, throws a life preserver to his passenger. The passenger survives, but the captain drowns. Wall Street would measure the value of that transaction by the cost of the life preserver. The rest of us would say that the rescue came at a much, much higher price. That price can be measured by the anguish and fear on the faces of those waiting for big box style medical and financial assistance at the Sports Arena and Convention Center.