Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I'm the 99 Percent,
But You Don't Speak for Me

by Libby Sternberg

Supporters of the Occupy Wall Street crowd have been posting signs on Facebook. That is, photographs of people holding signs with their "stories" on them. These tales are usually some variation of "I am an average guy/gal who tried to do everything right and now I've got tons of debt and can't find a job." Some tell of losing their houses or practically going bankrupt when serious illness hits them without a health insurance coverage safety net.

While these stories generate a painful pang of sympathy--no one likes to hear of others' hardship -- they also stir in me a sense of befuddlement.

As sad as these tales are, they're all, more or less, confessions of mistakes, big life-altering mistakes. So it bewilders me why these sign-makers would want to share these embarrassing stories with the world. Surely they must know that even the most sympathetic readers probably silently ask questions like these:

Why did you rack up so much college debt?
Why did you choose a major in a field with few employment opportunities?
Why did you forgo buying a high-deductible/low-premium health insurance policy?
Why did you take out a mortgage, or refinance one, with little to back it up?

I know, I know -- some of these storytellers would argue that when they made these mistakes, the economy was strong, and they expected to be able to land jobs, get health insurance from an employer, and pay off their debts responsibly.

I'm sorry you are having trouble.
I'm a writer, too. It doesn't
always pay the bills.
Even if we are
 in the "99 percent"
income bracket together,
you don't speak for me.
That part of the tale has a "there but for the grace of God, go I" quality to it that everyone can relate to. We all make mistakes. We all take on debt. Heck, I was a music a conservatory, no less.

But that's where the differences start. Although my parents paid for my degree,  I knew I'd have a hard time finding work in my field, which was highly competitive, when I graduated. I knew I'd have to make tough choices if I wanted to stay in it. Eventually, I chose another path.

So I understand "mistakes" (although I don't look at my music conservatory days as a mistake; music study enriched my life immeasurably in other ways). Everyone understands mistakes.

But not everyone takes to the streets with the implied message that these mistakes--no matter how well-intentioned the original goals were at the time--are someone else's fault, or that someone else should pay for them.

Not everyone points their finger at those who are doing better than them and says "you're to blame; your wealth makes me poor."

So please don't say you speak for the entire "99 percent" who aren't mega wealthy when you broadcast your mistakes and your implied message that others are to blame and should pay on your behalf.

I've made my fair share of mistakes, too, and haven't blamed the wealthy or Wall Street or corporations or capitalism in general. You don't speak for me.

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