The Economic Appeal of the Occupy Wall Street Movement to Middle-Class Americans

The Economic Appeal of the Occupy Wall Street Movement to Middle-Class Americans

October 24, 2011

Seemingly out of nowhere, economic inequality is no longer the political issue that dares not speak its name. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, politicians who talk about reducing disparities in incomes or wealth have been promptly charged with “class warfare.” The stunning success of the Occupy Wall Street movement in attracting adherents and sympathizers could change that, at least for the current political season. What lies behind the movement’s surprising middle-class appeal, however, isn’t high unemployment or slow economic growth. The real reason is that the 2008 meltdown and its economic aftermath have cut the wealth of millions of average Americans by up to half — and Washington has been unwilling to do anything about it.

There is little controversy among economists that the fabled U.S. land of opportunity has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. Using the standard measure (the “Gini Coefficient”), America now ranks 93rd in the world in terms of economic equality. That puts us behind places like Iran, Russia and China. The poverty in those places is much worse, but the concentration of wealth is much greater here. According to the Federal Reserve, the top 1 percent of us in 2007 owned nearly 35 percent of everything of value, net of debt — that includes savings, stocks and bonds, real estate, art, furniture, clothing, on and on. Perhaps more important, the top 20 percent of Americans owned 85 percent of the country’s net wealth.
Yet, such striking inequality still cannot explain the appeal of Occupy Wall Streeters — I’ll call it the OWS movement — because comparable disparities of wealth have been around for a generation. Go back to 1983, and the top 1 percent of Americans owned 34 percent of the country, and the top 20 percent claimed 82 percent.

The answer here lies in the particular way that the financial and housing meltdown has affected middle-class families. Consider the following: While the bottom 80 percent held only 15 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2007, most of it was tied up in the value of their homes. We know that, because when we break down that 15 percent figure, we find that the bottom 80 percent held just 7 percent of all financial assets in 2007 but 40 percent of all residential real estate assets. And the housing boom topped out in 2007.

The reason the OWS movement resonates so broadly today lies in the subsequent loss of so much housing wealth.  The 2008 meltdown and its aftermath have driven down the value of residential real estate by about 35 percent. And that 35 percent included most or all of the equity that millions of middle class families had in their homes in 2007.  America already was a place where 80 percent of the people held only 15 percent of the country’s wealth. Now, do the math. About half of that wealth was in financial assets like savings and pensions (the Fed’s 7 percent figure), and the rest was in home equity. So, since 2007, the bottom 80 percent of Americans have lost up to half of their net wealth.

Those losses also aren’t distributed evenly:  Households in their 30’s and 40’s, for example, usually have almost everything they own tied up in their home equity, and which typically adds up to less than one-third of their homes’ value.  They’ve been wiped out, wealth-wise.  Older households, on average, have larger home equity, so they still have some modest increment of wealth. But if they’re approaching retirement or already retired, there’s also little they can ever do to make up their losses.
When middle-class Americans turn to Washington, they see the resounding success of the government’s efforts to stabilize the financial markets – where the top 1 percent derive most of their wealth. The rich are back to becoming even richer. That’s the way America has operated for at least the last generation. What grates on middle-class Americans this time is that they’ve been getting poorer. And Washington has done little to stabilize the market from which they derive most of their wealth, which is housing.

To be fair, President Obama can claim a little credit here, since he has proposed a series of initiatives to support housing, mainly by giving banks incentives to refinance more mortgages at favorable terms.  But the largest force driving down housing prices and wiping out middle-class home equity is sky-high home foreclosure rates.  The President hasn’t yet taken on those foreclosures, but he still has time to champion a new initiative.  For instance, he could call for temporary loans for families whose mortgages are in trouble, financed through lending by the Federal Home Loan Banks.

Mitt Romney, Obama’s most likely challenger, can’t call for anything.  Last week, Romney went to the state with the highest foreclosure rate in the country, Nevada, and made what may turn out to be a very costly mistake.  Embracing GOP dogma that “the right course is to let markets work,” he declared that Washington should let the foreclosure process “run its course and hit the bottom.”

Yet, this is the very process now hollowing out a good-sized slice of the American middle class.  Given Romney’s position, the issue provides a new opportunity for the Obama campaign.  Much more important, however, the problem itself presents a critical challenge for economic policy makers. If they and the next President ignore it, inequality in America almost certainly will enter a very nasty, new phase.