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Occupy protest hits a nerve

Barry Vasey didn't need any congressional report. Those numbers only confirm what he has seen and felt. Something is happening here, and it is happening because too many people for too long felt that the American Dream was dissolving into illusion.

Most people do not have the energy or inclination to pitch a tent in Niagara Square. But a lot of folks are, in spirit, there with Occupy Buffalo and their cohorts across the country.

Barry Vasey is there in body. The retired Harrison (later Delphi) Radiator worker drives in from Grand Island with blankets and socks for the Occupiers. He stood Thursday among dozens of tents in the shadow of City Hall. He stood with others who testify to the consequences of the slippery slope that upward mobility -- once an American birthright -- finds itself on.

"When I started at Delphi in '72, we had 13,000 workers," Vasey said. "When I left, we had 1,300 workers. Those jobs left for Mexico and China."

Vasey is 60, lean and graying, wearing jeans and a Delphi jacket -- a testament to the age/ethic/income cross-section of Occupy.

"The company would cut back, and give the guy on the line two jobs to do," he added. "They kept wanting to do more with less."

Do more with less. It sounds like Corporate America's mantra.

I am not surprised the movement has spread like a contagion. The core Occupy complaints -- gaping income chasm; corporate lobbyist-shaped government; tax sympathy for the super-rich -- resonate across America's eroding middle class. Two out of three people in a CBS/New York Times national poll this week thought that wealth should be distributed more evenly. Nearly half thought the Occupy protesters reflected the sentiments of most Americans.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office confirmed that household income for America's richest 1 percent more than tripled from 1979 to 2007. The middle class settled for less than a 40 percent uptick. More dollars, in other words, flowed to the top of the mountain than down it. The squeeze tightened after the 2008 meltdown vaporized jobs and corroded college funds and retirement accounts.

"It used to be that just the husband worked," Vasey said. "Then the wife had to work, too. Now in some families they both work two jobs."

You do not have to sleep in Tent City to feel the cold, hard reality. Even a confirmed capitalist such as Richard Schroeder, an Amherst financial consultant, sees it walk daily through the office door.

"The majority of our clients are middle class or upper-middle," Schroeder said. "What I've seen over the last 15 years are people getting just one- or two-percent [annual] raises. A number of people in their 50s and 60s were demoted or lost their jobs, or otherwise are not as well off as they were in the 1990s."

Obvious remedies include tax code changes, health care reform and curbing the Wall Street excesses that imploded the housing market. When even billionaire Warren Buffett admits he does not pay his fair tax share, you know the scales are unbalanced.

I don't think most folks have a problem with capitalism. It's the unfairness that prompts people to pitch tents. The bankers' backs got covered in the wake of 2008, the brokerage houses got their bonuses and Corporate America hums along. Meanwhile, homeowners are stuck with upside-down investments. One in seven Americans are either looking for work or no longer bother to. Recovery, where art thou?

"I'm not here for myself, I'm getting by," Vasey told me. "I'm here for the change I think we need."

Across America, in body or in spirit, he has a lot of company.