Campbell: Fighting for the 100 percent

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Sister Simone Campbell addresses attendees of the Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy on Wednesday. Behind her stand volunteers representing the United States’ various income brackets.

Advocating for 100 percent of the American people is a big task. Sister Simone Campbell isn’t looking out for a minority group or a sector of the population — she’s looking out for every single U.S. citizen.

Luckily for Campbell, people have been giving her their names and stories on note cards and tiny bits of paper so she can carry them with her in her Bible, little reminders of all the people she is fighting for.

These issues were also the focus of Campbell’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday. She shared stories in her lecture, “With Economic Justice For All, Justice For the 100%: What We Learned on the Bus.”

Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, collected most of these stories on her “Nuns on the Bus” tour: A first-generation college student who had to save up money on her own — and face five weeks of homelessness in the process while her mom was in jail — before she started her first semester; a sophomore college student who realized, because of one of Campbell’s speeches, that his parents had actually been struggling more than he thought to pay for his tuition; a girl working full-time in a clothing store, but living in a homeless shelter because her wages still couldn’t cover rent.

Campbell likes to focus on these stories because they represent the reality that is taking place in America.

“If you listen to political sound bites, you’d think we were in the 1970s where everyone participated in the economy to 100 percent growth,” she said. “You would think that [the top 1 percent] was part of all of us; that the majority of the population thinks we’re closer together. But we, the people, need to look at reality.”

To demonstrate the disparity between income earning levels in America, Campbell had members of the audience help her create a human bar graph. Five people, showing the quintiles of income, spread out in front of the audience.

Each 20 percent income sector was asked to take one step for every five percent that their income had raised between 1979 and 2009.

The result was the person representing the top 20 percent taking 10 steps away from the podium, the person representing the middle class taking a couple steps away and the person representing the bottom 20 percent actually taking a step backward.

When Campbell added the top 5 and 1 percent into the bar graph, the person representing the top 1 percent of the American population was so far separated from the rest of the group he was out of eyesight for most of the people seated in the Hall of Philosophy.

This visual representation helped Campbell show just how far the top 1 percent, and even the top 20, is from the realities of the people in the bottom 20 to 60 percent. Statistics from 2009 showed that the bottom 20 percent of people in America were at an income level of $27,000 or less, while the top 20 were making $112,000 and up.

Campbell said that, between 1949 and 1979, everyone’s income levels had been increasing by 100 percent.

After this, changes in government tax policy and a focus on trickle-down economics, wage cuts, the disbarring of unions and threats to the social safety net prevented the majority of Americans from keeping up with the growth of the top income levels.

The reality now, Campbell said, is that many people are stuck in low-wage jobs with stagnant or decreasing incomes. Many have to work two or three jobs in order to get by.

“Often, we think that folks [in the bottom 20 percent] just haven’t been working hard enough or are entry-level people. What people don’t know is that folks have been for years — decades — at this low-wage position,” she said.

In order to lessen the gaps in our economy, Campbell said the U.S. needs to start working together and sharing the wealth.

That requires a change in the way we think about poverty and social justice.

“We have to have conversations together about what’s fair, which requires us to do the most difficult thing: To step away from the
unpatriotic lie that we’re based in individualism and to rediscover, what folks here in Chautauqua know, that we’re based in community,” she said. “We’re in this together.”