Protecting Fair Lending Is Key To Our Economic Recovery

Most Americans correctly understand that the economic meltdown was caused by a perfect storm of misconduct in the lending and financial industries and inadequate rules and enforcement.  A 2010 Pew Financial Reform Project poll, for example, found that American likely voters overwhelmingly blamed banks for making unsustainable mortgages (42%) and too little regulation of Wall Street (24%) for the crisis.

Fewer are aware, however, of the role that racial bias and discrimination by lenders and brokers played in creating the crisis.  Understanding that role and the tools available to correct it is key to ensuring our nation's full economic recovery.

Despite the progress we've made as a nation toward the goal of equal opportunity for all, significant barriers remain, especially when it comes to mortgage lending by banks and brokers.  In a 2005 report using federal data that presaged the current crisis, for example, The Opportunity Agenda, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council warned that-even controlling for income-African-American and Latino borrowers were significantly more likely to be sold high cost, subprime loans than whites, despite the fact that as many as 50% of those borrowers qualified for prime loans. Racial inequity in lending actually increased with borrower income levels, and with the degree of neighborhood segregation.

Loans in these communities were more costly, and were frequently predatory, carrying hidden fees and conditions or marketed through deceptive practices.  Some, for example, were designed with built-in rate adjustment features making them unsustainable over the loan's lifespan.

More recently, a series of lawsuits and settlements have revealed pervasive patterns of racial discrimination in home lending.  In December 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice reached the largest fair lending settlement in its history with the lender Countrywide.  The Department says that Countrywide discriminated on the basis of race and national origin against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers between 2004 and 2008, charging more than 200,000 of these borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers, and steering borrowers of color into subprime loans.

The Justice Department has settled similar discrimination cases against AIG Federal Savings Bank, Wilmington Finance Inc., PrimeLending, C&F Mortgage Corporation, Midwest BankCentre, Citizens Republic Bancorp, Inc., and others, reinforcing the reality that these practices are pervasive.

Why would subprime lenders disproportionately target minority communities for risky loans and, often, deceptive and predatory lending practices?  There are several possibilities.  Many minority neighborhoods, even middle-classed ones, lack banks or other traditional lending institutions, making them more susceptible to exploitation.  People of color are more likely to be first generation homebuyers, with fewer sources of information, experience, or advice.  Many lenders assume them to be poor credit risks, even when they are well qualified for traditional loans.

Lenders' discriminatory treatment toward communities of color previewed and paralleled exploitative practices that they visited upon moderate-income white communities, senior citizens, military servicemembers, and more broadly. Today, consequently, we are all in it together, with some two million homes in foreclosure.  In addition to homeowners, the mortgage crisis is displacing millions of renters whose landlords are in default.

Fortunately, solutions exist that can put homeownership back on track, repair devastated communities, and restore the promise of equal opportunity and fair housing for all Americans.  Just as the Obama administration has correctly insisted on a review of loans to servicemembers, for instance, they should demand a review of loans in communities with high concentrations of discriminatory and predatory loan practices.  The administration should direct the Treasury Department to issue long-overdue civil rights and fair housing regulations for programs it oversees.  And Congress should modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to reach a wider range of institutions and to strengthen equal opportunity protections.

Other needed reforms include increasing homeowners' access to financial counseling, reducing the principal of loans owned or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and maintaining a government role in the secondary mortgage market to ensure that qualified working Americans of all races have access to 30-year fixed mortgages going forward.

Acknowledging the role that racial bias has played in the financial and mortgage crisis is crucial to understanding the scope and scale of that crisis.  Concrete steps toward greater and more equal opportunity for all are important to ending it.

Connections Between Media Depictions of Black Men and Boys and Lower Life Chances

While there has been significant improvement in racial attitudes in the past half-century, the tragic death of Trayvon Martin suggests that stereotypes and bias against African Americans, especially males, still persist. The Opportunity Agenda’s new report, "Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions, and Media Consumption," lays out evidence that African-American men and boys are grossly overrepresented in depictions of criminality and violence in the media, as compared to documented reality. These false portrayals, reasearch proves, can lead to distorted and negative perceptions as well as discriminatory treatment against African Americans.

Scholars have long documented that there is a correlation between media depictions, audiences' attitudes, and real life action. In the case of African American men and boys, extensive media audits conducted by scholars and researchers over the years show that the overall presentation of black men and boys in the media is a distortion of reality in a variety of ways, including that they:

  • are underrepresented, including as “talking heads” or as users of computers,
  • are overrepresented in certain negative depictions, such as criminality or  unemployment,
  • are limited in their positive depictions and especially to sports or entertainment,
  • are overly associated with seemingly intractable problems,
  • have important dimensions of their lives largely ignored, such as fatherhood or work lives.

Social science research has long documented that people's conscious and unconscious attitudes are shaped, at least in part, by what people take in from the media, including news reporting, entertainment, video games, and advertising. With respect to distorted media images of black men and boys, the consequences are far reaching and can result in:

  • exaggerated views related to criminality and violence,
  • public support for punitive approaches to problems,
  • general antagonism toward black males, and
  • exaggerated views, expectations, and tolerance for race-based socio-economic disparities.

Perceptions are important because they determine, in part, people's decisions and actions. Consequently, attitudes and biases against black men and boys can negatively affect them every time their fate depends on how they are perceived by others. Examples of real world impact, documented in the literature, include:

  • a higher likelihood of being shot by police,
  • harsher sentencing by judges,
  • lower likelihood of being hired or admitted to school, and
  • lower odds of getting loans.

The report points to ways in which advocates, media makers, and others can redress this stereotyping and improve life chances for black men and boys. Donwload the report here

 

 

On Foreclosures: Too Little, But Not Too Late

The Obama administration and states around the country have taken important steps in recent months toward putting American homeownership and financial security back on track. But it’s clear that more ambitious solutions are needed.

After a lull due to negotiations over fraudulent bank practices, foreclosures are expected to come roaring back this year, with hundreds of thousands of Americans newly at risk of losing their homes. As the scourge of foreclosures continues, the economic security of families and the stability of communities remain at risk. The crisis has deepened inequality throughout the country, and continues to hold us back as a nation.

To be effective, America’s solutions to this crisis must match the scale and shape of the problem. They must stem foreclosures while ensuring that the abuses that caused this problem never happen again. They must help families and communities rebuild their economic security while ensuring that successful homeownership remains a firm steppingstone to opportunity for working Americans. They must protect people from discrimination and ensure fair housing and lending for all Americans.

Earlier this month, a group of housing experts that includes The Opportunity Agenda, National Council of La Raza, and the National Fair Housing Alliance released a Compact for Home Opportunity. The Compact offers over a dozen practical policy solutions that, taken together, will reduce foreclosures, help families and communities restore their economic security, and rebuild the American Dream for the 21st century. It is a crucial part of the national Home for Good campaign that is gaining strength around the country.

One of the Compact’s calls is for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce the principal on loans they own or back to fair market value. A range of economists, experts, and Administration officials agree that doing so would prevent foreclosures while strengthening our economy, improving overall property values and, in the long term, benefiting Fannie and Freddie’s solvency. Yet, Edward DeMarco, acting head of the federal agency that governs Fannie and Freddie, has inexplicably refused to consider principal reduction as a broad-based solution. His position is particularly indefensible, given that Fannie and Freddie are currently owned by the American people after a massive federal rescue in 2008.

While keeping the pressure on DeMarco is key, the Compact for Home Opportunity offers many other things that federal, state, and local actors, as well as private industry, can do today to drastically improve Americans’ housing prospects. One particularly effective example is supporting qualified counseling to Americans considering homeownership and those facing financial difficulty. Counseling by professionals certified by HUD significantly reduces the likelihood of being snagged by predatory lending practices and of running into financial trouble down the line. It’s an investment that saves homes and heartache, as well as tax dollars.

Principal reduction by Fannie and Freddie, housing counseling, and many other solutions exist that can strengthen home opportunity for everyone in our nation. It’s not too late to turn things around. But the clock is ticking.

Honoring Justice

On March 1st, I had the honor of speaking at the memorial service for civil rights hero and respected jurist Judge Robert L. Carter. These were my reflections:

I had the privilege of serving as Judge Carter’s Law Clerk in 1989. But years before that, I was sure that I wanted to know this man, and to be known by him.

During college, I worked as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, and I was assigned to assist Dr. Kenneth Clark in fashioning a school desegregation remedy for, of all places, Topeka, Kansas—which had yet to fully desegregate. Dr. Clark had me read Richard Kluger’s book, Simple Justice, chronicling the road to Brown v. Board of Education.

On page 271, I met a man who Kluger described as “a limber, quiet, and strongly self-disciplined black lawyer named Robert Lee Carter, who came to the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund after a stormy career in the Air Force.” I was intrigued.

“Carter’s insistence that black officers were entitlted to every privilege that white officers enjoyed,” Kluger wrote, “got him branded a troublemaker and almost tossed out of the service altogether, until Bill Hastie intervened with Washington’s higher-ups.” I had to know more.

I read in Simple Justice, and in other places, that, working with Dr. Clark, Judge Carter had crafted the complex mixture of law, history, and social science that won the day in the Brown case.

I read that the Judge had argued 22 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and won 21 of those cases.

And I read that when a threatening white sheriff, backed by an armed mob, had mockingly called the Judge by his first name, young Bob Carter replied with a line worthy of Sidney Poitier or Clint Eastwood: “Only my best friends call me by my first name, and I don’t think I know you that well.”

The Sheriff, by the way, was the notorious Cecil Price of Philadelphia, Mississippi, who was later convicted on charges stemming from the murders of 3 civil rights workers there. When Sheriff Price told the Judge “that’s how we do it down here,” the Judge Responded by calling the Sheriff “Cecil.”

This was someone I had to meet.

And then there was the swimming pool story. Though many of you have heard it before, I think it bears infinite repeating.

As a teenager, the Judge’s family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, not far from where my family and I live now. East Orange High was not officially segregated, but black students were intentionally isolated and made to feel unwelcome.

The school had an excellent swimming team, and learning to swim was part of the white student’s phys ed requirement. But black students were allowed to use the pool only at the close of school, on alternate Fridays—after which it was drained, cleaned, and refilled, as the Judge says in his own book, “to protect the white children from contamination the blacks might have left in the pool.”

In 1933, at age 16, young Bob Carter read in the newspaper of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling that all public school facilities available to white children in the state had to be equally available to black children. So the next time the white boys headed off to the pool, Bob Carter joined them.

His stunned teacher threatened him with expulsion. It will not surprise any of you to learn that this did not work. The teacher pleaded with him. Those of us who served as the Judge’s law clerks, or appeared in his courtroom, are aware that this was a particularly ineffective approach.

So young Bob got into the pool. But none of the white kids would get in with him. And none of the other black kids would get in with him. And Bob did not know how to swim, because, of course, he’d been excluded from the swimming lessons the white kids had had.

So week after week until graduation, this 16 year old would get into the pool, by himself, and cling to the side of the pool for dear life until the end of the period.

I later came to work for the Judge, to learn from him, to love and respect him—to bring him breakfast every other morning for a year (something they don’t tell you when you apply for a clerkship)—and to see his fearsome intellect and presence in the Courtroom.

But when I think of him now, I will always think of that 16 year old. Clinging to the side of the pool. Clinging to Justice and Equality, and Basic Human Dignity for all of us—as he did throughout his long life.

Thank you, Judge Carter. And Godspeed.

 

 

Poverty, Opportunity, and the 2012 Presidential Election

A recent forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, provided an in-depth discussion into the level of concern in the United States about poverty and opportunity, particularly concerning children.Spotlight on Poverty also looked at whether or not these issues will be factors in the upcoming presidential election. Overall, people believe strongly that equal opportunity for children of all races is very important; that not all children currently have full access to opportunity; and that presidential candidates’ views on poverty are very important. But, many think that neither the candidates nor the media are discussing poverty enough.

Interestingly, there were substantial numbers of Republicans who agreed with Democrats and Independents in several of the poll’s questions. (The corresponding national poll of likely voters undertaken at the end of last year highlighted several key points; all graphics are from this poll's report.) 

Most importantly, 88 percent of respondents said that “candidates’ positions on equal opportunity for children of all races are important in deciding their vote for President,” and 55 percent said that they were very important.  

Among Democrats, 70 percent agreed that candidates’ views in this area arevery important (and an additional 25 percent said they are somewhat important). Fifty-five percent of Independents said that candidates’ views arevery important (and an additional 28 percent said they are somewhat important).  Among Republicans, 44 percent agreed that candidates’ views in this area are very important (and 42 percent said they were somewhat important). Agreeing that they are very important were 85 percent of African Americans, 62 percent of Hispanics, and 51 percent of Whites.

But, despite the level of belief in equal opportunity for children, many voters do not believe that all children have full access to it as of yet. Over half of the respondents say that “children of different races tend to face unequal barriers to opportunity.” 

In this question, researchers pointed out significant differences in the breakdowns: “By party, 70 percent of Democratic voters said children face unequal barriers, compared to 50 percent of Independents, and only 38 percent of Republicans. By race, 50 percent of white voters said children face unequal barriers, compared to a solid majority (62 percent) of non-white voters who said so as well. Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of African American voters said children of different races face unequal barriers. Somewhat surprisingly, only 48 percent of Hispanic participants agreed.”

There was strong feedback from the public that candidates’ views on poverty matter in deciding on their vote for president. Almost nine in ten respondents said that this was very (45 percent) or somewhat (42 percent) important.

Within specific demographics, 61 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of Independents, and 33 percent of Republicans agreed that candidates’ views on poverty are very important. (Another 35 percent, 40 percent, and 51 percent, respectively, agreed that candidates' views are somewhat important). Agreeing that candidates' views are very important were 76 percent of African Americans, 57 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of Whites. 

Despite the importance of this topic to voters, almost half of the respondents said that “they have not heard enough from presidential candidates about reducing poverty.” This includes four in ten Republicans, just under half of Independents, and six in ten Democrats. Half of both Whites and African Americans agree with this opinion, along with more than four in ten Hispanics.

When asked if the media has adequately covered poverty reduction during this campaign, half said no, while four in ten thought they had (10 percent didn’t know or didn’t answer). By party, six in ten Democrats said that the media hadn’t covered this issue enough, as did half of Independents and four in ten Republicans. By race, this opinion was expressed by about half of Whites and Hispanics, and by almost six in ten African Americans.

Childhood poverty can have severe, long-lasting results. The Urban Institute found the following

  • Sixty-three percent of children enter adulthood without experiencing poverty, but 10 percent of children are persistently poor, spending at least half their childhoods living in poverty.
  • Black children are roughly 2.5 times more likely than white children to ever experience poverty and 7 times more likely to be persistently poor.
  • Children who experience poverty tend to cycle into and out of poverty, and most persistently poor children spend intermittent years living above the poverty threshold.
  • Being poor at birth is a strong predictor of future poverty status. Thirty-one percent of white children and 69 percent of black children who are poor at birth go on to spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty.
  • Children who are born into poverty and spend multiple years living in poor families have worse adult outcomes than their counterparts in higher-income families.

A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation revealed that, “over the last decade there has been a significant decline in economic well-being for low income children and families. The official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, essentially returning to the same level as the early 1990s. This increase means that 2.4 million more children are living below the federal poverty line.” 

These statistics and others illustrate the ongoing need for presidential candidates, other politicians, the media, social service providers, and everyone else, to stay focused on this issue and work to alleviate poverty in the United States.

Obama’s Wrong Note on Foreclosures

As Election Day nears, President Obama is regaining his populist mojo. His State of the Union speech was mostly pitch perfect, evoking core American themes of opportunity and optimism, and calling for “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

But the President has repeatedly hit a wrong note in talking about the foreclosure crisis. Not only is his story inaccurate, but he is promoting a harmful narrative that will make it harder to fix the problem.

The President said in his State of the Union address that “we’ve all paid the price for lenders who sold mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them and buyers who knew they couldn’t afford them.” He repeated that theme a week later at a speech in Falls Church, VA, contending that people who did the “right and the responsible thing” were hurt by “lenders who sold loans to people who they knew couldn’t afford the mortgages; and buyers who bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford; and banks that packaged those mortgages up and traded them to reap phantom profits, knowing that they were building a house of cards.”

According to the President’s narrative, then, large numbers of Americans who are struggling beneath unsustainable mortgages willfully chose that fate and deserve roughly equal blame as do the lending and financial giants who cooked up the subprime scheme, targeted vulnerable communities, engaged in deceptive and discriminatory practices, chopped up and distributed faulty loans, and forced fraudulent foreclosures. A different class of “innocent, hard-working” people are the only ones paying the price in this narrative.

Let’s be clear. The foreclosure crisis was caused by reckless misconduct by the lending and financial industries, inadequate rules and enforcement, and staggering long-term unemployment. America’s long history of overwhelmingly successful homeownership went to pot because regulators looked the other way and unscrupulous corporations took advantage, not because working Americans suddenly became wildly irresponsible. Indeed, conscientious lenders like Self-Help Credit Union in North Carolina successfully made loans to the same group of working Americans over the same period with negligible default rates.

Am I saying that no American homeowner ever applied for a mortgage without a realistic plan to repay it? Of course not. A key purpose of proper underwriting standards and regulations is to help lenders and buyers determine what’s mutually sustainable. But to divide American homeowners into “responsible” ones who’ve managed to stay current on their payments and supposedly “irresponsible” ones who’ve fallen behind is inaccurate and harmful.

After confessing that he and the First Lady—two Harvard-trained lawyers—had trouble deciphering their own first mortgage, the President has nonetheless failed to convey how many Americans were victimized by deceptive and predatory practices; how many families sacrificed all to pay the mortgage after one or both parents lost a job; and how many people facing foreclosure today would be successful homeowners if fair rules and vigilant regulators had been in place. He also leaves out how much each of us benefits when we help our neighbors avoid foreclosure, even if we’ve personally managed to stay current on our own mortgages.

The President’s flawed story erodes the public will to aid struggling homeowners and bolsters those who say that the foreclosure crisis should be allowed to “run its course”—why rally to help people you’ve told us are irresponsible? Yet, without a more ambitious policy agenda than we have now, we’ll see millions more Americans lose their economic security, families uprooted from schools and communities, senior citizens thrown into uncertainty or destitution, and the economy in continued chaos.

The President’s current story is also deepening the feelings of shame that keep too many Americans from seeking the advice that could help them save their homes or, at least, make a successful transition. Housing counselors say the stigma attached to foreclosure keeps many people in the shadows instead of accessing the services that exist. It doesn’t help when the Commander in Chief labels them irresponsible.

It’s time for a new, accurate story about homeownership, opportunity, and the American Dream. It’s a story that places blame where it belongs while recognizing that we each have economic and moral responsibilities. It’s a story about the solutions to the crisis that exist, including many that the Administration can take without any action from Congress. And it’s a story about why, in this crisis as in so many others, we are all in it together. As communicator-in-chief, the President should take the lead in telling that story.

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Honoring Judge Robert L. Carter

On January 3rd, America lost one of the greatest champions of equal opportunity and human rights that our nation has ever known. Judge Robert L. Carter, civil rights lawyer, jurist, and fierce defender of justice, passed away at age 94 after suffering a stroke.

Judge Carter was a primary architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, crafting an innovative approach that blended constitutional scholarship, social science research, historical knowledge, and strategic litigation. After the victory, he pursued a strategy that helped bring desegregation to the North, where it had long been treated as an open secret. Over his career, he argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court, and won 21 of them.

As a federal judge, he held litigants to the highest standards, while rigorously guarding equal justice under law. Over four decades on the bench, he brought greater inclusion to the New York Police Department and to construction trades that had long excluded people of color and women. And he continued to speak out against injustice wherever he encountered it. That he chose me as one of his law clerks was a singular honor; I remain humbled by having been able to serve in that capacity.

In 2007, Judge Carter honored The Opportunity Agenda by authorizing us to create a Robert L. Carter Legal Fellowship for innovative lawyers to promote equal justice under law. Our three Carter Fellows since then have secured more equal health care for people of color in New York and Connecticut, expanded fair housing in Texas and at the national level, and ensured that federal economic recovery programs reached the hardest hit communities around the country. We are proud to continue Judge Carter’s legacy of excellence, innovation, and equal opportunity for all.

Thank you, Judge Carter, for your lifetime of service, for the transformative change you brought to our nation, and for the sterling example of leadership that you have given us all.

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December 6: National Day of Action

Access to an affordable home under fair and sustainable terms is crucial to our economic security and central to the American Dream. But misconduct by banks and lenders, inadequate rules and enforcement, and record unemployment rates are robbing millions of Americans of their homes and security while ravaging whole communities and holding back our national recovery.

Clear solutions exist that can prevent foreclosures and restore communities today while repairing the American Dream into the future. As the Occupy movement focuses on home opportunity, with a National Day of Action to address the foreclosure crisis on December 6, The Opportunity Agenda has launched "Thirteen Things America Can Do to Stop Foreclosures and Fulfill the American Dream," a summary of effective solutions that can save homes, restore neighborhoods, and fulfill the American Dream. This document states in plain language who must do what to ensure home opportunity for all Americans. Click here to learn more.

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The Occupy Movement Focuses on Foreclosures

As the Occupy movement enters its third month, it is moving into a new phase. Colder weather in the north, combined with aggressive push back from city officials around the country, is requiring the movement to adopt new, innovative approaches that include, but transcend, public presence as protest.

Pundits are wondering aloud whether Occupy is through. But this young movement is just getting started. An exciting piece of evidence to that effect is a new focus on foreclosures.

Alongside its call for job creation, corporate accountability, and relief from crushing student loan debt is a growing demand that Wall Street and Washington make right the disaster that their greed and neglect respectively caused. The movement has deemed December 6th a National Day of Action to Stop and Reverse Foreclosures.

The new “OccupyOurHomes.org” website describes the stakes and the problem well:

“Everyone deserves to have a roof over their head and a place to call home. Millions of Americans have worked hard for years for the opportunity to own their home; for others, it remains a distant goal. For all of us, having a decent place to live for ourselves and our families is the most fundamental part of the American dream, a source of security and pride.

 In 2008, we discovered bankers and speculators had been gambling with our most valuable asset, our homes—betting against us and destroying trillions of dollars of our wealth. Now, because of the foreclosure crisis Wall Street banks created with their lies and greed, millions of Americans have lost their homes, and one in four homeowners are currently underwater on their mortgage.”

These Americans are joining many others, particularly in communities of color, who were victimized by predatory lending and lax enforcement for decades. A new report by the Center for Responsible Lending, for example, shows that African Americans and Latinos were consistently more likely than whites to receive high-risk loans. While an unacceptable 12 percent of White Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure or are delinquent, a staggering one-quarter of Latinos and African-American borrowers are in the same position.

Fortunately, there are a range of solutions that can save homes, restore communities, and rebuild the American Dream of fair and sustainable homeownership. They range from mandatory mediation of foreclosure proceedings, to pre- and post-purchase counseling, to principal reduction and bankruptcy reform. Also important are approaches like own-to-rent programs, community land trusts, and improved fair housing enforcement. And when Congress again takes up the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it will be crucial to maintain a government role that keeps homeownership accessible and sustainable for working Americans.

The Occupy movement and its allies have been criticized, unfairly in my view, for failing to articulate solutions. As their attention turns to addressing foreclosures, it is clear what they are working for.

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What 21st Century Democracy Looks Like

Those who say they don’t know what the Occupy Wall Street protestors want fail to understand the nature of this quintessential 21st century movement.  It is true that they have no policy manifesto.  They have not yet released a list of shared demands, although they are working toward doing so.  But when you listen to the participants tell their stories, when you read their signs and hear their songs, their shared desires for our nation clearly emerge.

Their most fervent demand, not surprisingly, is for honest work that pays a decent, living wage, not only for themselves, but for their 14 million fellow unemployed Americans. But taken together, there is much more.

They seek accountability, including fair rules, oversight, and prosecution where appropriate of the corporations and individuals who wrecked our economy—often through fraud—then continued to pay themselves astronomical bonuses, even as they received an expensive rescue from American taxpayers.They demand a fairer tax structure in which the wealthiest companies, millionaires, and billionaires (the 1%) contribute their fair share to the nation that is giving them so much.

They want a political system in which every American’s voice and vote are equal, and in which large sums of money are not allowed to corrupt the democratic process. They reject the Supreme Court-made fiction that a corporation’s money is the same as a citizen’s voice under our First Amendment, and they want to explore amending the constitution to restore it’s real meaning in this regard.

They want to make college affordable to everyone with the ability and desire to attend, without the crushing burden of student loan debt that cripples graduates’ progress and deters many gifted students from attending at all.

They want recognition that it was lending industry misconduct, lax rules and enforcement, and unprecedented unemployment rates that caused the mortgage meltdown. And they see the basic truth that halting foreclosures, restoring devastated neighborhoods, and reducing mortgage payments to fair, realistic levels is in everyone’s interest—including lenders.

They want a rapid end to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with care and employment for the troops coming home. And they seek to put the goal of deficit reduction in the proper context. Like most Americans, they not only see job creation as more urgent to our national health and prosperity, but they also see putting Americans back to work, combined with fair tax reform and a military wind-down, as the most effective path to growing our economy and closing our deficit.

Clearly not every Occupy Wall Street protester is walking around with this fully-formed list of demands in her or his head.But this is not that kind of movement. Just as the demonstrators famously rely on each other’s voices for amplification, their best ideas and demands are crowd sourced, a rough-and-tumble vetting process that befits a 21st century democracy.

Nor is it surprising that different participants in the movement will differ in their precise policy prescriptions. Members of the 1960s civil rights movement—including Martin Luther King, Jr. and now congressman John Lewis—often bitterly disagreed about what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws should include.

And Dr. King’s subsequent call for an end to the war in Vietnam was not initially shared by all members of that movement.There is an important, vibrant difference, it must be remembered, between a movement and a political action committee.

Occupy Wall Street’s organizers are now engaged in a deliberative, participatory process designed to identify more specific common demands. This is an important step for a movement that is growing in maturity as quickly as it is growing in size and diversity. But as that process moves forward, one need only visit Zuccotti Park and the many other dynamic sites of this movement around the country to understand what this movement wants.

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