At the intersection of Wall and Main

November 18, 2011

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

Whether you agree with it or not, the Occupy Wall Street protests that began two months ago in New York have ignited a debate over income inequality and the political clout of the nation’s banks.

Before the protesters began camping out in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, much of the conversation had  focused on the federal government’s debt and not the equally big debt run-up by U.S. consumers in the years before the financial crisis. Now it seems you can’t go a day without reading a story about the vast gulf between rich and poor and the shrinking middle class, or how the housing crisis won’t get fixed until something is done to alleviate the burden for millions of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages.

Last month a group of graduate journalism students from Columbia University spent some time at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti where they did in-depth interviews with over 200 protesters. (This was before New York City moved to forbid people from sleeping out in the concrete plaza). And the students findings were surprising in that the OWS protesters weren’t just a bunch of unemployed hippies, who all vote Democratic. Rather, they found that the majority of protesters didn’t identify with either political party, 56 percent didn’t have private health insurance and just under 40 percent gave President Obame a grade of C for managing the economy.

We talked to two of the students, Lili Holzer-Glier and Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, and this video discusses some of their research.

The findings of the Columbia students are something that many who work on Wall Street might want to pay more attention to. In our story “The Wall Street Disconnect,” we found that many of the 1 percent of the finance world just don’t get why so many people in the U.S. and around the world are upset with their profession.

The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street is a bit startling, given that three years after the worst of the financial crisis unemployment remains at 9 percent, 15 percent of the country is on food stamps and at least 20 million people live in extreme poverty in this country. And in many states, entire neighborhoods are ravaged by foreclosures.

Many of the people in finance we talked to said the unemployed either weren’t looking hard enough for work or were unwilling to move to states where jobs were available. Of course not everyone in the 1 percent was unsympathetic. Jason Daggett a chief investment officer with a Washington, D.C. family office told us: “Main Street got punished for carrying out-sized debt.”

Yet for the most part, Wall Street and Main Street are clearly talking past each other. Hopefully our story (found here in PDF form) will help provoke a thoughtful conversation.

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