Saint Mary’s Adds Its Voice to Concerns About Economic Inequality

As Americans struggled with a stubborn jobs crisis, fretted over the prospect of a double-dip recession and marched on Wall Street to protest corporate greed, more and more were asking: Whatever happened to the American Dream? That question was on the minds of students and faculty at Saint Mary’s, too, as they grappled with the changing economic landscape in this country.

With the whole nation focused on the issue of income inequality and Occupy encampments sprouting in Oakland, San Francisco, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, it’s not surprising that Saint Mary’s students and faculty members also took up the issue. As part of a nationwide “Occupy College” teach-in last fall, more than 100 members of the SMC community took part in a teach-in on campus in November.

“We wanted to educate people so they can evaluate and make their own decisions about whether or not they should participate,” said Frank Martinez, one of the students who helped to organize the event. For Martinez, the Occupy protests against economic disparity have a personal relevance. “I work three jobs to go to Saint Mary’s,” he said. “Once I graduate, I don’t want to work three jobs. I want to work one job at something I’m passionate about.”

Hisham Ahmed, a politics professor and expert on the Middle East, compared the importance of the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring protests and advised students to follow the nonviolent spirit of that movement. “You are the vanguard of the future,” he told the students. “You are writing a most important chapter in the history of the country.”

The ever-growing income gap in the United States was also the focus of a panel entitled “Poor and Poorer: The Demise of the American Middle Class.” The speakers, including SMC faculty and community members, held different views on the cause of the income gap, but all agreed that the phenomenon was real — and alarming.

Jack Rasmus, author of “Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression” and a lecturer in SMC’s politics and economics departments, noted that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now command 24 percent of all income in the United States, compared to 8 percent in 1979.

Kara Boatman, a professor in the School of Economics and Business Administration, suggested that the American dream is “becoming a nightmare” for too many people in the United States. “We need to start voting our consciences and not our wallets,” she said.

Solomon Belette, executive director of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, urged the next generation to take a new approach. “Show solidarity with the poor. Become engaged in a socially responsible way,” he urged the nearly 100 SMC students at the event. “It’s important to have values aligned with the kind of society we want to create.”