We are the 99%—really?

Preston Sprinkle —  November 3, 2011 — 13 Comments

I’m not a politician, nor an economist. I’m the last one who could wax eloquent about our economic crisis, and I have no clue how to get out of it or when we will get back on our feet—if ever. But from what I’ve been told, America has faced a huge economic downturn since 2008 and it’s provoked quite a stir, not least with the recent outcry of “the 99%.” It seems that Americans are fed up with not getting a bigger slice of the pie; they are sick and tired of scraping by on meager wages.

But I don’t know. I know that times are tough—sort of—but I still wonder if things are as bad as we have made it sound. I mean, when I go to the Dodger game, the stands are still relatively full. People are still buying Dodger dogs at $6 a pop, washed down with a couple $12 beers. When I was thinking of going to the U2 concert, I was told to purchase my tickets well ahead of time because they would quickly sell out, and I was after the cheapest seats—priced at $150 a ticket! My lower middle class neighborhood is still lined with boats, RVs, motorcycles, and 3-4 cars per house. The Starbucks I’m sitting in is jammed packed with people sipping $5 coffees, and when I take a quick glance at its parking lot, I see at least a dozen $30,000 SUVs.

I don’t know. I’m going to go out on a limb here and please correct me if I’m wrong, but could it be that our economic downturn simply means that we cannot live the materialistic, comfort driven lives that we’ve been used to? I wonder if it’s been so hard on Americans because we simply don’t know how to live simple lives, where we meet our needs but not all of our wants. We have a subtle addiction to material things—brand named clothes, eating out, new cars, and the newest electronic gadget that’s dangled in front of us.

There are almost 6 billion people on the planet. 2 billion live on less than 2 dollars a day. 1 billion live on less than 1 dollar a day. 6 thousand people die daily because of hunger and other preventable diseases. Millions more live without access to clean drinking water—let alone the latest 4G iPad. I think we need to think more in terms of a relative economic downturn. We are still the wealthiest nation history has ever seen.

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Lucas E.

    Preston, This is not really Lucas, but Luke his dad (his name & e-mail automatically showed up), anyway, I’m not a very theological deep person (thats why I’m glad Lucas is going to EBC, maybe he can help me), but every time I go to the States (I live in Mexico), I ask myself the same question; What the heck? What is everyone crying about? What economic woes? Just like you I see people paying 12 dollars to watch a movie where; someone saves the world, destroys the world, falls in love, fall out of love, gets revenge, gets even, kill a bunch of people or drives fast (and that pretty much describes every movie made), I see filled parking lots at the mall, long lines of filled shopping carts at Albertsons, target, Kohls and etc (because thats where i shop), and just the wretched excessiveness that seems to be America, and I wonder, what is every one crying about? I see poverty almost daily here, I spent time in Haiti and I wish the people who complain or want more would realize what they already have and not cry and whine for more. It’s crazy. But I think the real reason is people are still trying to fill their lives with everything except the one thing that really brings contentment, Jesus. As long as people don’t have Jesus, they will always want more. I know this is a pretty basic explanation, I don’t know any fancy long religious words or deep theological comments, I do know Spencer (I actually beat him once in Disc Golf, just once), Now I forgot the final point I was going to make. Thanks for your insight.
    Luke Everett.

  • Spencer MacCuish

    Preston,

    The photo in your post certainly is powerful and it is great to consider this photo as a mater of perspective. But, I think your post while it certainly contains a lot of truth (I resonate with most all of your points) would probably be best read independently of the OWS movement. I would encourage all to consider with open minds and hearts what can be learned from this Global movement (maybe yesterday’s post or today’s post be a good starting point). All that to say, I love the content of your post but just don’t think it is appropriately titled or tagged with the appropriate picture.

    spencer

    • Spencer, you raise a really good point. The OWS movement is much more complex than the picture makes it out to be, and the picture is, I think, meant to spur one’s thinking and incite an emotional reaction more than it’s intended to critically interact with the issues. I still think that some in the movement (like the dude in Santa Barbara who’s bemoaning his meager 1/4 million a year income; see Ian’s response) fit the critique of the picture, but certainly not all.

      Thanks for raising these helpful and clarifying points!

  • Devan,

    You too raise some good points. Thanks for sharing them. But just to clarify, I’m not a pastor. I was raised in a relative poor home by a single mom working 3 jobs to make ends meet. I too worked various jobs to put myself through school (waiting tables, construction, cleaning pools, etc.). I currently teach at an unaccredited school that nearly went under financially last year. And I do live in a house (I’ve got 4 kids), but I rent (I’ve never owned). Globally speaking, I’m still rich and always have been. But I don’t think I fit the category of “some pastors” who “have fallen out of touch with the realities around them.” And the fact that you are educated and have potential access to work (e.g. there are nearby businesses that you can apply to), not to mention clean water, puts you in fairly privileged position relative to the rest of the world.

    • Devan Safer

      Well I see what you mean. One of the blessings of my reduced standard of living is I’ve learned: you don’t have to earn a big paycheck to have nice things, but you need to pick and choose. If I want to occasionally go to a nice restaurant, occasionally buy nicer clothing or go on a nice trip, I need to learn to buy generic foods, stuff in bulk, shop at lower end stores to occasionally enjoy nice things or travel. So, if I do get a steady job again. I’ll spend it differently than I would have. And yes, I am in a fortunate spot in many ways, but I appreciate your responsiveness. I hope you didn’t take my concerns as an attack. But I would say you haven’t lost touch b/c you are responding to all of us in a real way. I did feel challenged by your points regardless.

  • stwright

    I understand your point, but I also sense the same line of reasoning that says, “They keep saying that global warming is happening, but I went outside today and it was pretty cold. Then I turned on the TV and saw that there was a blizzard in Colorado today too! Obviously the Earth isn’t getting warmer.” The fact that you don’t noticed people struggling to make ends meet is exactly why this movement began: to make these issues visible to people insulated from poverty.

    If you told a blue-collar worker who was laid off by a company that continues to report billions in dollars of profit after being bailed about the government that the economic downturn has just made him and his family unable to live materialistically, and he should just live less extravagantly, you would be incredibly remiss in the majority of situations.

    I question your perception that your neighborhood is “lower middle class” if it is “lined with boats, RVs, motorcycles, and 3-4 cars per house.” And either way, you’re still talking about a middle class perspective, not the perspective of the working poor — a class in which more and more people are finding themselves every day, much to their surprise.

    Lastly, I think that the spirit of the Occupy protests also stands up against the “subtle addiction to material things.” I don’t see the movement as a bunch of kids who feel entitled to be able to afford a new iPad every year because they went to college, which I fear is the perception being spread here and elsewhere.

    Lastly (for real this time), I’m someone who’s very interested in remembering and pointing to the realities of the majority world (the “developing” or “third” world) in constructing our imagination of what life is to be about. That said, I don’t think it’s responsible reasoning to think people should shut up about their struggles in the US because things are worse in a lot of other places. I’d hope we wouldn’t have told Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60’s that if he was so disturbed by the realities of American segregation, he should go back to Africa to remember how good African-Americans actually have it. Dangerous thinking.

    • Devan Safer

      I agree. Just b/c “it could be worse” doesn’t mean we take the injustice and shut up. I am not a middle class. I am a student who struggles managing a busy schedule and wonders when I’ll get steady work again. I have felt the burden of the economy. The reason standing up for our “rights” is a big deal in this country b/c we live in a country that mandated everybody get the same opportunity and gets treated as an equal person. I think Preston makes some good points. But sadly, I think some pastors have fallen out of touch with the realities around them just b/c they live in a house and they’ve seen third world countries. Some people really have felt a bad burden on this economy and just because you haven’t felt the pull of the downturn doesn’t mean that problems don’t exist. We really need to learn to walk a mile in the shoes of others before we tell them what to do. SO, in some ways I think Preston is dead on. In other ways, I think perhaps some of us are out of touch with the realities of this economic downturn.

    • stwright,

      Thanks for your response. Several things you say here are healthy correctives to my post, and so I welcome much of what you said. In particular:

      – I oversimplified the OWS movement. I would still say that everything I said could still apply to SOME of its members (as per Ian’s comment above) but not all. Some (many?) in fact would be just as concerned with the “true 99%” depicted in the picture.

      – There are definitely people living in real poverty in the US, particularly in the inner cities. I would say that in many cases, this is real poverty that needs to be confronted. And it is terribly sad that the working poor are struggling to find work. I would still say that my analysis still rings true for some in this category, but certainly not all.

      So thanks for your comments and astute observations.

      But let me make a few clarifying remarks. First, my post was admittedly addressing a general point without close attention to the particulars and the exceptions to the rule. In this sense, I would still stand by my basic point: Most Americans have an addiction to comfort and material things and don’t know how to live simply. So when times get tough (relatively speaking), it’s very hard for them to loosen their grip on their wants and be content with their needs. Most, not all. And, again, some are genuinely struggling with their needs.

      Second, I still stick by the point that relative to the truly impoverished people in the world (the 2 billion), we are still wealthy. Most of the working poor still have access to clean water, health care, a welfare system, and even if they did end up on the streets, there are still several safety nets to catch them. One of the most down and out neighborhoods in LA is “Skid Row.” But even here, they have access to consistent 3 meals a day, which includes healthy portions of meat (usually). As one inner city relief worker put it, “it’s very hard to go hungry on skid row.” This isn’t true of every inner city situation, but in America, it’s relatively easy to survive–relative, that is, to the situation of the 2 billion who live in grinding poverty.

      Third, in no way would I knock what MLK did. In fact, I think he would approve of everything I said. MLK fought for civil rights here in America, but was always quick to remind Americans of the grinding poverty that exists in India and Africa (during his era), and attempted to do something about the issue there, as well as back home. It was MLK who said that the US’s stockpiling of extra food should be stored not in our US barns but in the hungry bellies of the millions of starving Indians children. Especially in his latter years, MLK become more and more concerned with global injustices, initiated, of course, by his bold protest of the Vietnam war.

      So if I gave the impression that I don’t care about needs in America, then please forgive me. I think we need to enact justice here and abroad. In this sense, maybe I should back off the OWS movement. It’s much more complex than I made it out to be, and there are several things in the movement that I resonate with (as per Spencer’s posts above and below). But I still think that in our economic downturn, we still need to realize how good we still have it (financially speaking) relative to most of the people in the world. I don’t think this is dangerous, but healthy, thinking.

  • michael

    I think that graphic, turning the 1% notion on its head, is quite a powerful image, even if it grossly oversimplifies the wealth/poverty divide.

    But given that 20% of children in America live in poverty… and many of them are hungry, how hung up can we really get on the irony of that image? Overall we are a nation of wealth, but does that make the hungry kid in Mississippi any more comfortable? We may have a national GDP of so many trillions of dollars, but that doesn’t morally justify hoarding of wealth amongst a relative few.

  • michael

    We are 7 billion, actually, as of this week…

  • Ian

    I’ve been thinking this since it started, so it’s nice to see I’m not the only one. I was hanging out in Santa Barbara last Saturday and got to see the “Occupy Santa Barbara” parade go by. My first thought was that most of the people in Santa Barbara most definitely the 1% if they aren’t homeless, but I got downright mad when I saw one of the signs a guy was carrying. It said:

    “$250,000 a year isn’t rich, it’s a dual income home. We are the 99%”

    There’s so many problems with that, but at the very least virtually everyone in the United States is closer to the 1% than the 99% globally. We need more perspective.

    • Devan Safer

      I think one legit point to that “$250,000 is not rich” sign that is legit is that when people raise taxes on the “rich” it’s not the millionaires and billionaires who are getting taxed. It’s the working middle class who work hard for the money they make. And I agree, it’s wrong for the government to raise taxes on the “rich,” but in actuality they are raising it on the working class while the elitists get off scott free. People don’t work that hard to be the source of mooching off of our government. So, I sympathize there. With that being said, if I made $250,000 a year and lived in SB, I think I’d be doing really well. Our government has done out of control spending, but in this country WE are the government. So, how have WE contributed to this problem? I confess I used to be a part of this problem. When I had full time work, I spent my money as if I knew i was getting a pay check in 2 weeks. So, I was prideful. I wished I learned the tricks of shopping at less expensive places for things like food and clothing. And eating out isn’t too healthy anyway. While we stand up to the government, we should all learn how to pick and choose when and where to spend top dollar on items and when to spend bottom penny.

    • I was there too, Ian! And I was thinking the same thing.