NEW YORK -- The Occupy Wall Street protests are hitting a nerve.
A dearth of jobs, overwhelming student loans and soaring health-care costs are just three major issues protesters have targeted. And regardless of politics, economic data suggests they're not alone in their frustrations.
It may be why the protests have spread to other cities – including Boston, Cincinnati, Seattle and Washington, D.C. – after taking root in downtown New York nearly a month ago.
Take for example the unemployment rate, which has been stuck near 9 percent since the recession officially ended more than two years ago. When counting those who settle for part-time work or have quit looking, that rate rises to about 16.5 percent.
A crippled labor market also shifts bargaining power to employers, giving workers less leverage to seek raises. That could help explain why pay was nearly 2 percent less in August than it was a year earlier when adjusted for inflation.
Student loans are another common rallying point for protesters – as expressed in one sign that read "Want demands? How about student loan bailouts?"
The struggle to keep up with payments is clear; about 320,000 borrowers who entered repayment in 2009 defaulted on their student loans by the end of 2010, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. That's up about 33 percent from the previous year.
Meanwhile, the cost of annual health insurance premiums for family coverage rose 9 percent this year and surpassed $15,000 for the first time, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust. Some don't have to worry about the uptick; an estimated 16 percent of the population does not have health insurance.
It's that economic backdrop that has driven a diversity of protesters to the streets
While a few hundred have been camping out in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, many more join in for a few hours or a day to add their voices. Here's a look at some of the protesters who ventured by in the past week, and the financial issues they're dealing with:
John Smith, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y., works part time at Trader Joe's because he hasn't been able to find work in his field for over a year, despite having a master's degree. He has about $45,000 in student loan debt. His girlfriend, Meropi Peponides, 27, a graduate student at Columbia University, will have about $50,000 by the time she graduates.
"I don't know in the end what exactly this will achieve, if anything. But if it makes people wake up just a little bit, it's worth it," Peponides said. "The potential is huge. That's why I'm here. I felt the potential somehow."
Smith said he has sent out about 200 resumes in his search. He's looking mainly for work with non-profit organizations. "The jobs that I've been applying for are all entry level jobs in my career field. I don't think I'm shooting for the stars trying to get those jobs." Smith said, noting that five years ago, before grad school, he was able to get work at that level.
He was carrying a sign that said, "I am the 99 percent," a slogan that resonated with him. "It's true. I am one of the many people that are having a lot of trouble finding ways to make it through things right now."
Tracy Blevins, 41-year-old Manhattan resident, has a doctorate in biomedical science but lost her job as an adjunct professor at Touro College this spring. She's since been getting by on odd jobs; most recently, she acted as a cross-country driver for $2,000.
"I'm earning money off a license I got when I was 16, and still paying off the loans I had to take out to get my degree," she said.
Even after nine years of paying down her loans, Blevins said she owes $10,000. She's current on payments now, but said the loans have crippled her credit score and even prevented her from getting work in the past.
"I have paid and paid and paid and I still owe $10,000. It's the interest that keeps me in debt," she said.
Steve and Barbara Diamond traveled nearly 100 miles to take part in the protest. They were motivated mainly by what they see as a disappearance of the middle class; and a connection between the economic problems of recent years and the amount of influence money has on politics. He held a sign criticizing the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, which overturned a previous ban on corporate spending in federal elections.
"Our government is being bought by wealthy people and corporations," said Steve Diamond, a physician. "Unless you get the money out of the elections, you'll end up with an oligarchy in this country."
"My father used to say when he came to here from Europe that this was the `Golden Land,'" he said. But he's not telling that to his own children: "This is what's happened inside two generations."
Joe Foley, a 48-year-old freelance cinematographer living in Manhattan, finished paying off his $45,000 in student loans just five years ago. His girlfriend has $120,000 in student loans.
Foley said work has been fairly steady in recent years, but he worries that he doesn't have any retirement savings or health insurance. He rents an inexpensive apartment and doesn't carry a big credit card balance, but realizes he's one broken leg away from being in serious debt.
"I was really hoping there was going to be a public option," he said of the federal health care reforms. "It was pretty disappointing that it didn't happen."
For now, he considers himself lucky that he's never had any health issues. His approach has been to "drink lots of water and miso soup and do yoga."
Ben Bear, 56, a San Francisco resident visiting his daughter in New York, works at a food bank and feels his job is secure.
"Unfortunately I'm doing well because I'm in a growth industry," Bear said. "The demand for food keeps going up. Everyone's got this image of who accesses a food bank as a homeless person. But it's families and the working poor."
Susan Knauss, 55, from upstate Livingston, N.Y., worked in the telecommunications industry for the past 25 years. But she was laid off a few weeks ago from the New York State Department of Transportation. She plans to get by on unemployment checks for the time being.
"But in two weeks, I won't have health insurance," she said.
She's also worried about her retirement savings. Even after making maximum contributions for most of her career, she worries that she hasn't saved enough and that the volatile market could eat away at the value of her 401(k).
"Where can you put your money where it doesn't go away?"
Maureen McMahon, 62, of Manhattan, a former school teacher, works part time by choice at a museum. She pointed to problems like the high number of uninsured as among the concerns that brought her out to protest; noting that the disparity in health care reflects that the economic system doesn't treat everyone equally.
"I'm an investor, I have stock," she said with some irony, as she held a sign that said "Tax Wall Street."
"I believe that corporations can be very useful and very compassionate," she said, adding that unfortunately, that kind of corporate responsibility seems to have diminished lately.
Katy Ryan, 35, of Jersey City, N.J., made a good living for years as a makeup artist, but since the downturn has struggled to make ends meet. She's getting fewer clients and having to cut her rates. These days she even has to take some work as a bartender so she and her 8-year-old daughter can get by. "I didn't have to do that for years."Her main concern is that the widening gulf between the rich and poor, and the notion that a better life is slipping out of reach for those who aren't wealthy. She noted that her mother was a long time member of the United Auto Workers, and that she saw her benefits and wages chiseled away over the years.