As the Occupy Wall Street protests stretch into their third week, New Yorkers may still be confused about who the protestors are and what exactly they want. But there should be no mistaking the fears and concerns that motivate them -- and continue to bring more into the streets. It would be a mistake to dismiss them as a noisy, disaffected fringe movement, because the grievances that drive them touch a deepening chord with millions of other Americans. Simply put, many of the protestors are angered by the feeling that government hasn't done enough to stem the tide of economic fall-out caused by the last recession. They are outraged that millions of Americans from all walks of life are unable to find or keep jobs. They are vocal about the widening chasm between rich and poor in our country. And they believe the government has turned a deaf ear to the fact that today's middle class must struggle harder every year to keep its head above water.
The empirical basis for the protesters' angry slogans is not hard to find. For generations, worker wages rose in lockstep with productivity. From 1947-1979, productivity increased 119% while hourly compensation increased 100%. But since 1980, compensation has stagnated, growing only 8%, while productivity has raced along at 80%.
We don't need to look beyond the Hudson for evidence of this widening inequality. As the Census Bureau recently revealed, my own borough of Manhattan has the largest income gap of any county in the United States, with top 20% of earners making close to 38 times as much as the bottom 20%. For the first time since 2000, more than one in five New Yorkers is living below the federal poverty line ($22,350 for a family of four). The percentage of children suffering in poverty is even worse -- a staggering 30%. At the same time, the top 1% of Americans own 35% of the nation's wealth. As the protesters' signs say, "We are the other 99%."
Historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as going beyond material wealth to encompass a "social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable... regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." But this great hope -- and fears that it might be crushed -- are at the heart of the protests in Lower Manhattan.
This is not a problem we can arrest our way out of. What's required is bold action by government to stimulate the economy and create jobs: Congress must pass President Obama's American Jobs Act, which would cut taxes for small businesses and pour billions into fixing the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
As New Yorkers, we have long prided ourselves on the multitude of voices and opinions in our city. While our community values public safety and respect for authority, we also know that people have a right to demonstrate peacefully in the streets. But as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues, we would do well to remember that New York has historically been a beacon for hopes and aspirations, a place where people have come for hundreds of years to build a better life, to dare to dream and believe in the promise of our democratic society.
It is time for government to renew its bond with those who believe in the great promise of our democracy, and want to see it fulfilled. Instead of turning away or ignoring the tumult in the streets, this is a moment when leaders in New York, Washington, D.C., and across our nation should realize that the cries of protestors in the streets, however noisy or disruptive, remind us of what made this country great in the first place.