Occupy Wall Street, One Year Later: Did It Make a Difference?

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Police officers arrest a protester near Wall Street during a demonstration in Lower Manhattan on the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York on Sept. 17, 2012.

A year ago today, a group of people angry about economic inequality, corporate greed and financial injustice staged a protest in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, pledging to “Occupy Wall Street.” There was no overarching agenda and no official spokespeople, just the famous rallying cry of “We are the 99%.” But that slogan was enough to hold together a loose confederacy of protesters who camped out for nearly two months before eventually being removed by police. The movement ignited populist anger against banks four years after the financial crisis and eventually spawned “occupations” around the globe.
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Occupy “struck a resonant chord with middle-class Americans who might never join a protest themselves but who are still angry that their homes are underwater, that their neighbors are jobless and that the economy is in disarray,” says Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate at U.S. PIRG.

But did it matter? Did the Occupy movement make any kind of lasting difference in banking practices, financial regulation or ordinary Americans’ lives?

Measuring the effect of an amorphous social movement is difficult, and a look at the broader economic landscape is sobering. A year later, big, powerful banks remain big, powerful banks. Unemployment is still high, Americans’ home equity and personal savings are depleted, and total student-loan debt tops a record $1 trillion.

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That said, there are a few notable changes in the financial industry that took place post-Occupy; while they might have occurred even if nobody ever held signs or chanted, “We are the 99%,” in Zuccotti Park, those protesters captured the zeitgeist in a way few other social movements can claim. Consider the following:

Debit-card fees. Last fall, Bank of America announced plans to charge customers a monthly fee to use their debit cards. Several other national and regional banks, including Chase, Wells Fargo and SunTrust, either had been testing similar fees or had announced plans to adopt them. Consumers were furious, especially at Bank of America’s planned $5 fee, which was announced shortly after the bank delivered a $6.2 billion quarterly profit. Banks said the fees were in response to a government cap on the interchange fees banks earn from debit transactions, which would limit how much banks earn from customers’ debit-card use. They wanted their customers to be furious at lawmakers, but they misjudged the fervor of antibank sentiment, some of it generated by all the attention paid to Occupy protesters. People instead were outraged at their banks. “Consumers stopped and paid attention, and as a result, they protested that $5 fee,” says Pamela Banks, a senior policy counsel at the nonprofit Consumers Union. This wave of anger eventually prompted banks to backpedal and abandon their plans to charge for debit-card use.

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Bank Transfer Day. While the debit-fee flap was in full swing, a Facebook-led protest called for customers of big banks to close their accounts on Nov. 5 and move to community banks or credit unions. While initial claims from the trade group representing credit unions about Bank Transfer Day’s success turned out to be significantly overestimated, the nation’s credit unions did pick up 214,000 new members in the month leading up to it. Compare that with the 600,000 new members credit unions added during all of 2010. Also, the Independent Community Bankers of America reported a 500% jump in online traffic to its bank-locator site during the weekend of Bank Transfer Day. “I do not really think there was an adverse financial impact on the biggest banks, but the smaller community banks and certainly the credit unions benefited at least temporarily,” says banking-industry analyst Ken Thomas.

Student-loan relief. Many young-adult Occupy participants seized the moment to protest the growing burden of student-loan debt, which, having hit the $1 trillion mark this year, has been called the “next financial crisis.” Some protesters, including a New York University professor, called for broad student-loan forgiveness. They didn’t get it, but they did get some initiatives from the Obama Administration designed to relieve some of the debt burden. About a month after the Occupy protests began, the White House announced a plan to let former students more easily consolidate their debts at a lower interest rate. It also bumped up by two years a plan in which “eligible borrowers will have to pay a maximum of 10% of their income toward their student loans, down from the current maximum of 15%, and will have their remaining loans forgiven after 20 years of payments, down from the current 25,” reported the International Business Times.

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Financial reform. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, lawmakers came up with an idea for a new government agency to regulate financial products and services aimed at consumers. In mid-2011, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) officially launched, and the White House urged Congress to confirm Richard Cordray as its director. “The sentiments that lots of people who are out there as part of Occupy Wall Street have … are shared by lots of Americans,” a presidential adviser told the Huffington Post. “Having Richard Cordray in place obviously would help them.” Since its inception, the CFPB has been busy. It has issued more than 100 subpoenas, according to the Associated Press, launched a database of consumer credit-card complaints and recently issued its first enforcement action, fining Capital One $140 million for deceptive marketing.