We are the 99 percent: The rise of poverty and the decline of poverty stigma

Joan Maya Mazelis, Brendan M. Gaughan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Stigma about being poor compounds the material struggles of the poor. In a society focused on individual responsibility and financial success as a life goal, it’s easy, and common, for poor people to feel like failures, and to blame themselves for their disadvantaged position. Yet the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement reflected a shift in perceptions about poor people-and may have also helped to shape it. OWS began on September 17, 2011 in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. Soon after the movement solidified in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, the rest of the country, and even the world, saw the formation of new Occupy protests in cities, towns, and college campuses. Within the days following the initial protests and subsequent encampments on Wall Street, an Occupy encampment was established in Chicago on September 23, 2011, and in Boston on September 30, 2011. Between October 1 and October 6, 2011, encampments sprung up in an almost routine fashion across the United States, with Los Angeles and Wichita joining the ranks of the protests, followed by cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, and Houston. By October 15, 2011, the Occupy Movement had spread to over 951 cities in 82 countries, from Washington DC to Madrid, and from Ann Arbor to Sydney. Protestors in nearly every corner of the globe exclaimed the movement’s characteristic slogan “we are the 99 percent” (Weigel and Hepler, 2011). Images of demonstrators announcing their poverty, and citing structural factors as the cause, saturated news coverage. OWS directly responded to the influence of banks and multinational corporations on the democratic process. The influence of the protestors is apparent in news coverage and in shifting popular perceptions about inequality (Milkman et al., 2012). Widespread sympathy with the OWS movement was surprising given that the majority of the American public has negative attitudes toward welfare and welfare recipients, as well as toward the poor more generally (Fraser and Gordon, 1994; Gilens, 1999; Katz, 1986, 1989). Since 1973 inequality has been rising, with the top 20 percent gaining ground and the bottom 80 percent falling behind. Rising contempt for the poor combined with political rhetoric and a long-existing individualist ethos to facilitate punitive welfare reforms in the 1990s (Wilson, 2000). Americans blame the persistence of poverty on poor individuals (Edelman, 2012; Gans, 1995; Handler and Hasenfeld, 1997; Jencks, 1992; Katz, 1983, 1986; Wilson, 2000). Wilson (2000) asserts that the belief that poverty results from individuals’ moral fabric rather than the social structure accounts partially for public support of cuts in welfare. Americans believe that the poor are generally lazy and undeserving and don’t value work the way the non-poor do (Garin et al., 1994; Gilens, 1999; Jencks, 1992; Wilson, 2000).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781317627401
ISBN (Print)9780415673440
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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