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Occupy Wall Street is slowing down a bit as winter sets in, but the conversation it inspired is still gaining momentum. Millions of Americans who once viewed themselves in general terms like “middle class,” “struggling” or “comfortable” now see the world more sharply divided into two groups: the 99% and the 1%.
But even in the middle of the protests, the division isn’t as stark as one might think. From the beginning, some of Occupy Wall Street’s strongest supporters have come from America’s richest families. Who are these wealthy few who have crossed the boundary, and what are they doing to help the other 99%?
Among the first 1% rebels was Robert S. Halper, a former vice chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange — and an early enabler of Occupy Wall Street. A friend of OWS mastermind Kalle Lasn, Halper was one of the first to hear about the decision to take over Zuccotti Park. When Lasn unveiled his plans, Halper gave him $20,000 to set things in motion. But while Halper was quick to pull out his checkbook, he chose to remain mostly on the outside of the occupation, only visiting occasionally to see what his money had helped ignite. By comparison, some 1% rebels have dived in to work more closely with the 99%.
Afraid and Isolated
Critics of the 1% tend to paint the wealthy as arrogant and self-centered, convinced that they deserve their wealth, and blind to their own good luck and the societal support that allowed them to prosper. But Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality and the Common Good, suggests that the relationship between rich people and their money isn’t quite so clear-cut.
“Sure, some buy into the idea of wealth creation and claim that they are completely responsible for their money,” says Collins, “but most realize that their wealth has to do with the society that we live in.” Once they reach that conclusion, he argues, it often informs their decisions. “Many people in the 1% for one reason or another have realized that the economy should not be organized to keep funneling wealth to the top.”
For Collins, the relationship between the 1% and the rest of the country isn’t theoretical. A great-grandson of Oscar Meyer, he is an heir to the family’s extensive meatpacking fortune. He argues, however, that his wealth doesn’t shield him from economic inequity. “As a parent, do I want my child to grow up in an apartheid society? Do I want to live in Brazil, where I have to surround my family with bodyguards as we take armored cars from one rich enclave to another? That’s kind of where we’ve been heading for the last 30 years. Do this for another 20 years and you’ve got another Sao Paolo.”
Karen Pittelman (pictured above, and right, with Elspeth Gilmore), a philanthropist and author ofClassified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Work for Social Change, echoes this sense of exclusion: “Class privilege often comes with a lot of isolation and fear, and that can be passed down through the generations along with an inheritance.” Part of the problem, she argues, lies in upper-class discomfort about the benefits they enjoy. “Being open and honest about how so much is rigged in our favor is a threat to the way things run. That stuff is supposed to stay quiet, behind the scenes. That’s the real reason why people who grow up with class privilege are taught never to talk about money.”
The Broader Community
Part of the solution, Collins claims, is for rich people to recognize that wealth cannot shelter them indefinitely. “We don’t live on islands. Well–some of us do,” he says with a laugh. “But most of us live in communities where we can see the results of 30 to 40 years of public policy that have increased inequality.”
Jessie Spector (right), the program director atResource Generation, a organizing group for young philanthropists, argues that the best tool for developing a more equitable society is tax reform. “I am focused on taxation as one key tactic for creating economic justice. It’s the best system we have on a scale large enough to create a more equitable society.” The burden, she notes, rests on the rich: “We need to pay our fair share. The wealthy need to pay much more if we hope to maintain opportunities for everyone in our society.”
Collins echoes the idea that higher tax rates broadly benefit society. “In the 1950s and 1960s, we taxed ourselves at a high level and used the money to pay for public investments that made our generation’s prosperity possible. Now, however, we’re stripping those investments in order to benefit a very small portion of the populace. Are we leaving anything for the next generation?” In addition to hollowing out the middle class and crucifying the lower class, Collins argues, this sort of thinking is devastating for the upper classes. “We also need to think about the health of the economy. Too much inequality undermines the basis of prosperity.”
Helping Others Find a Voice
Lobbying for tax reform isn’t the only way that wealthy people can help their communities. Spector has worked with Occupy Wall Street, and has used a large part of her inheritance to help fund small grass-roots organizations: “My priorities have been to give money to work led by the people who are most directly affected by injustice. I work withPoor Magazine, a media group that is organized around economic injustice.”
When Karen Pittelman protested at Occupy Wall Street, she carried a sign that poked fun at her own wealth: “Another Trust Fund Baby for the Radical Redistribution of Wealth. She stresses that philanthropy isn’t just about giving away money; it’s also about giving away power. With part of her inheritance, she endowed the Chahara Foundation, which funded grass roots groups in Boston that were run by and for low-income women of color. She quickly learned, however, that the privilege that she was taught to take for granted could get in the way of her own philanthropy. “Part of the thing about being raised with class privilege is that you are always taught that you know best, that you have the solution to everything,” she says. “After the foundation’s first round of giving, it was so clear to me that, had I been making the decisions, I never would have even known about so many of these amazing, small, grassroots groups they were supporting because I wasn’t from those communities. The women making the grant decisions had been working as activists in their communities their whole lives, so they knew what was going on in a way I never would.”
Giving away power not only taught Pittelman about her own expectations, but also about her ability to change the world. Looking back, she says: “When you have a lot of resources and are willing to put them behind radical causes, it can make some people nervous.”
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.