Empathy and the 99 percent by David Atkins

Empathy and the 99 percent
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

The media has spent a lot of time asking about the specific grievances of the protesters in the "Occupy" movement. Rather than ask people camped out at one of the protests, they need look no further than at the heart-wrenching reminders of what life is really like in the United States at We Are the 99 Percent. The site is filled with photos of real Americans and their brief stories. Stories like this:

My name is Allison, I’m a 13 year old 8th grader. I only get a few hours of sleep at night, but I don’t tell my parents because they don’t need to know that I need sleeping pills. I’ve been showing symptoms of Schizophrenia but we can’t afford for me to go see a doctor about it. My parents get really scared when they have to pay the morage because it really cuts down on our money. I’ve stopped eating alot so there’s more food for everyone else.

My parents don’t know that I know we’re the 99%.

And this:

Today my sociology professor asked a class of 35-40 hard-working students at a respected, if public, university how many of us expected to get a job after graduation… No one raised their hand. Then she asked how many of us had over $10,000 in student loans… Almost every hand in the classroom, including mine, shot up.


And this:

As a single mom, I put myself through college and grad school so I would have resources for my old age, and so I could help my kids get established in life. I had a good job, then a chronic illness gradually dismantled my life. I lost my job, most of my savings, and ended up living with friends and family for years because I could not take care of myself. I got lucky: I found a dr who could help me get some of my function back, worked part-time for a while, and I used the rest of my savings to buy a small house of my own. But it was too late: the “recession” kept me from resurrecting my career— I was competing with too many other people who did not have my gap in employment. My resources are gone, I can’t sell my house in this market so I can share housing with a friend. I live month to month on SS and a small pension, and can’t afford dental care or eyeglasses. I worry about my children, now grown, who are all struggling in one way or another, living also month to month, and my grandchildren, who may not have much of a future.


There are now over 60 pages worth of these stories, each with photos of the real people who have submitted them, and many more coming each day.

Reading them is a constant reminder of how perilous is the line between good fortune and the threat of homelessness. I personally am one of the very lucky ones. At 30 years old, I make a modest five-figure income (well below what is necessary to live simply for a family of four in my area.) I run a small business which has managed to remain moderately successful for over six years even as many of my friends and acquaintances in my profession have abandoned the field. I have some decent savings and no debt. I went to a good university on full-ride academic scholarship and thus had no need to take on student loans. I was lucky enough to realize that the housing market was wildly overinflated, and chose not to purchase property even though my parents and many of my friends did; I have a month-to-month lease on a nice apartment. I have decent health insurance through the individual market, and have only had a six-month gap in my life without health insurance.

Yes, I have worked hard, and yes, I have been frugal and had good predictive judgment. In theory, I could easily say that I earned my good fortune and tell these people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take their hands off my tax dollars. In theory.

But doing that would make me a delusional, self-absorbed narcissistic asshole. Because the reality is that as hard as I've worked, I've also been incredibly lucky. Lucky enough to have had educated parents who helped tutor me at home. Lucky enough to have been brought up in a middle-class lifestyle where education was valued. Lucky enough to have had parents who owned a small business themselves, where I worked for essentially room and board throughout college while learning the ropes of an industry and the basics of running a business before starting out on my own. Lucky enough to go to a good college where I met my amazing current fiancee. Yes, I've worked hard all my life. For two years I took a 45-minute bus ride to college in the morning in business clothes, and rode it back right after class to work late into the night, then stayed up until 2am to do homework. I didn't have much of a social life, and I didn't take a year trekking through Europe.

But I've also been blessed with remarkable good fortune--fortune that I understand could run out at any time.

No, I'm not in the top 1% of incomes. I'm not even in the top 10%. But I'm incredibly fortunate nonetheless. I realize that, and I intend to do my damnedest to help those who have been less fortunate than I.

I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in the moral vacuum inhabited by people like this:

Student loans started out as a good idea. The GI Bill got the whole thing started, by having the government create a program that provided higher education for those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. The end result was a dynamic, educated group of former military people (trained, disciplined, seasoned and responsible) who helped sweep the country to great prosperity during the 1950s and early 1960s.

What most people forget now is that the GI Bill was payment for services rendered. In that way, it differed dramatically from student loans, which are payments for . . . what? It’s questionable whether those students currently getting “educated” at America’s top propaganda institutions . . . er, colleges and universities, will contribute anything to the economy — and we know that render any services to the American people, in the cause of American freedom, in exchange for those cash handouts...

[T]he loans have created a self-entitled group of people who, rather than pay off their debt, feel that it’s totally appropriate for them to attack others’ financial livelihood, as they’re doing now when they try to interfere with our nation’s economic core.

Just as the Vietnam war protests had nothing to do with actual principles, and everything to do with a spoiled generation’s fear of the draft; so too do today’s protests in America’s financial centers have nothing to do with concerns about America’s economy, and everything to do with deadbeat kids who willingly took on an unreasonable amount of debt, and are now facing the financial consequences for their cupidity and stupidity.

There are few things more morally repulsive than people who started on third base, enjoyed the benefits that government and society provided them, and then think they hit a triple while declaring that human rights such as healthcare and education should only be available to those who can directly afford to pay for them.

Few things are more disgusting and shameful than those who have experienced good fortune themselves, and feel nothing for the people whose stories, like those at We are the 99 Percent, are all around them as reminders of what their lives could be like if just one or two breaks had gone differently.

Pearl clutchers and "bipartisan" hand wringers insist that the left and right in this country must come to some meeting of the minds. An agreement on rational, sensible policy on which we can all come to consensus.

But the truth is that there is no coming to terms with those who live in an ideological bubble that prevents from feeling basic empathy or shame. There is a real battle of ideas being waged in this country, and only one side is going to come out victorious.

It will either be those who understand what it's like to be part of the 99 percent and realize that the system is broken. Or it will be those who believe that all of these people deserve to suffer in squalor. There can and will be no middle ground.