What company are you from?

By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  November 9, 2011

Confused by the "Occupy" movement, whether "Occupy Wall Street" or "Occupy Maine" or "Occupy the one-person bathroom in the coffee place" or whatever else? Annoyed by them? Demanding they develop sharply focused demands, along with a few easily identified leaders the media can interview to death?

If so, you may be missing the point, and perhaps you need to listen to the song "Sixteen Tons" a few dozen times while researching terms like "debt slavery," "truck systems," and "company town."

What might seem like just some rag-tag collections of folks camped out in various cities seems to me to be a clarion call that most of us shouldn't be ignoring. At the very least, the Occupy movement brings to light that America is not a very diverse place.

I don't mean racially, ethnically, or religiously. While we're not perfect there, either, progress is being made, and even same-sex marriage is gaining traction. But where we're making no progress, and perhaps sliding backwards, is in economic diversity. Growing up in Chicago in the '70s and '80s, I had friends across the economic spectrum, from those who lived in government-subsidized housing to those whose parents had multiple homes. This gave me, a child of solidly working-class parents, a rich diversity of perspectives and life experiences.

It seems those times are gone, though, or going away fast. So many call themselves "middle class," but aren't. For decades now, we've been supporting ourselves on credit. Wages have been stagnant since long before the current economic meltdown. If you are truly middle class, too often you are holding on by the very ends of your fingernails. Gone are the days where a college education will reliably keep you afloat in the middle-class seas; here are the days where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is a few oceans wide.

Even if you're fine (or have deluded yourself into thinking you are), chances are you know more than a few people who are struggling and maybe drowning economically, given that one in 15 Americans lives in poverty and 45.8 million of us are using SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

Long-term lack of economic diversity has the potential to devastate us as a society by killing hope and along with it creativity and innovation. Not to mention the likely decline in lifespans because people can't afford health insurance, the decline in education as more people lose homes and property tax revenues plummet, and the crushing of any dreams the next generations might have harbored to succeed. Hell, it can impact the very access to knowledge we have — as we see local and vital services such as public libraries go under or have budgets slashed.

Lack of economic diversity means there are a lack of voices to represent most of the people, given that in most major metropolitan areas in this country even local politics now seems accessible only to the well-heeled and well connected.

A United States where the majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of one percent of the citizens means that effectively we all lose except that one percent. It means that if we continue along this path, America will slowly slip into second-world status, where we might indeed see some new twist on company towns, where — if you have a job — you're in debt to your very soul to your employer.

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