Protesters Are Not the Only Ones Begging for Jobs

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's been almost three weeks since protesters began camping out in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. Since then, the "Occupy Wall Street" initiative has grown exponentially, and has begun to garner media attention worldwide. On Wednesday of this week, labor unions and students joined the protesters, swelling their ranks and reinforcing their very simple message:

The American people are tired of struggling to scrape by while the financial industry prospers.

The protests have been mostly peaceful, though police appear to be losing patience now and then. More than 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend, leading to a lawsuit against New York City, and more protesters were taken into custody Wednesday night. However, although the protesters have been remarkably polite, there's been plenty of commentary dismissing them as scruffy, disorganized and incoherent. Interviews with Wall Street regulars seem to echo those themes. Well-heeled bankers, attorneys and brokers reportedly are pleased that the protesters are having the opportunity to express themselves, but don't quite understand what they're trying to say.

If that's true, it's only because Wall Street either isn't choosing to listen or is so far out of touch with the mainstream that it simply can't comprehend the hardships facing average Americans. Yes, salaries on Wall Street are slightly lower than they were before the market melted down in 2008. According to The Wall Street Journal, median banker pay on Wall Street is down from $2.2 million to only $1.6 million per year, much of it in stock options. Bankers are now forced to scrape by on a mere $380,000 of after-tax cash. The Journal quotes a Wall Street paymaster as apologetically explaining that, "it's not a lot of money."

To the average American worker, however, $380,000 of after-tax income probably seems like a fortune. According to the most recent available figures, median income in the U.S. for a family of four still hovers below $50,000 per year, just 13% of bankers' reduced salaries. It's small wonder that Main Street resents Wall Street's prosperity.

Increasing Americans' opportunities for employment would definitely help, but the jobs report isn't likely to provide much cause for optimism. The Labor Department reports that the economy added only 65,000 jobs in September, about half of what would be required for the economy to stay in step with adult population growth. Unemployment is currently estimated at 9.1%, but that estimate doesn't take into account workers who've been forced to accept low-paying jobs at places like McDonald's ( MCD) and Starbucks ( SBUX). Adding those people to the tally may mean that as many as one in five American adults are un- or under-employed. No wonder American workers are taking to the streets.

It appears that job losses aren't coming primarily from the private sector. ADP Employer Services, a private company, reported this week that private employers added 91,000 jobs in September, primarily in service industries with manufacturing lagging behind. Unfortunately, cuts in state and federal government jobs, including reductions in the military, are likely to undercut those gains, leaving workers with little opportunity and the economy on the edge of another recession.

Here, then, is the challenge for Congress and state governments. The federal budget is admittedly facing massive deficits. Congress may be tempted to cut those deficits by slashing state funding, forcing state governments to cut programs and lay off employees. Federal agencies may also be denied essential funds, which will leave them little choice but to lay off additional staff. Tax dollars may be saved, but workers and their families will suffer as a result. If you believe, as Teddy Roosevelt did, that "the welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us," cutting state and federal jobs is not the best way to reduce the federal deficit.

So, here's something for Congress to consider. Funding federal and state jobs programs will cost tax dollars in the short run. However, workers who make money don't just sit on it. They spend it, revitalizing the national economy. Workers with money buy consumer goods, spend for services, and pay taxes. And, if they're paid a sufficient wage to make them self-sufficient, workers don't drain already overtaxed social welfare programs. Investing in jobs would be an excellent way for Congress to turn the economy around, rebuild the nation's infrastructure and, in the longer term, reduce federal deficits by increasing income tax revenue.

The "Occupy Wall Street" protesters are based in lower Manhattan now, but the movement is already spreading into New Jersey and it's not an especially long trip south to Washington, D.C. Maybe the denizens of Wall Street don't understand why the protesters are upset, but Congress certainly should. American workers -- who, incidentally, are also voters - are begging for the simple opportunity to make an honest living. If Congress is smart, it will put partisan politics aside and fund the jobs programs that will take protesters off the streets of Manhattan and put them back to work.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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