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Who is OWS and why should we care?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Does the Occupy Wall Street movement represent anything other than the protesters who have taken to the streets in New York and elsewhere?  Public opinion data indicates that they are tapping into widespread frustration with the political system, even if they don’t reflect the political ideology of most Americans.  And that makes this a movement worth watching.

So what drives those who are actively taking part?  One pollster, Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, actually waded into the throngs occupying lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and interviewed nearly 200 protesters.  While his methods didn’t necessarily adhere to the most rigorous polling practices, the results are suggestive.

Half of those interviewed are under the age of 30, but 1 in 7 are age 50 or older and most are employed.  In other words, this does not appear to be a “student” movement., although about half said this is the first time they got involved in any political activity.

Politically, 1-in-3 protesters identified with the Democratic party.  The remainder said they were independent or left of center.  However, this does not translate to unstinting support for the incumbent president.  More of the protesters interviewed actually disapprove than approve of the job Barack Obama is doing.

They were also divided on whether TARP was necessary to help the economy.  They largely agreed, though, that the wealthiest Americans need to pay “more of their fair share.”  And a good number say they want to exercise the same kind of influence in the Democratic Party they feel the Tea Party has in the Republican Party.

The second question is whether these protesters speak for a larger segment of the population.  The answer to that is both yes and no.  A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 37% of Americans say they support the Occupy Wall Street movement.  By comparison, 28% say they support the Tea Party.

Although public support specifically for either movement is in the minority, it does appear that these groups have tapped into mounting public frustration with government.  Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans say they are “angry” at the current state of U.S. politics.  That’s up from 49% at the beginning of the year.  Conversely, less than half (47%) of the public is “hopeful” about our political system, which is down sharply from 60%.

A recent Monmouth University poll asked New Jersey residents how different groups have benefited from current Washington policies.  At the bottom of the list was the middle class – only 1-in-10 felt this group has benefited a lot – even worse than either the poor or the wealthy.  At the top of the list was Wall Street, with half saying this group has benefited from government policies.

A recent study by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini found that the wealth of “ultra-high net worth individuals” grew by 11.5% in 2010.  On the other hand, the U.S. Census reports that “real” median household income is 6.4% below where it was just before the recession.  Another study indicates that incomes have fallen more since the economy officially began to recover in June 2009 than they did during the recession itself.

While most people aren’t aware of these statistics, the public feels there is a widening disparity fueled in part by government action or the lack thereof.  Polling indicates a growing frustration among the general public that politicians from both parties ignore at their own peril. Both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements are manifestations of this unsettled mood.