p class=”txt-no-indent”>True story: one time, I was working with one of my students, trying to help her develop her Personal Mission Statement. I asked her what I thought was a simple question: “How much money do you need to live on?”
Her response was to burst into tears.
No doubt about it: money is an emotionally laden topic for many people. That’s especially true in our society, where it is often used as a barometer of a person’s intrinsic worth. Money can be a particularly tough topic for activists, who may be deeply acquainted with the inequities and evils inherent in the capitalist system, and yet are forced to live within that system.
Nevertheless, you are a human being with material needs, and those needs must be met, and some of them will require money. My major point in this chapter will be the same as that of every other chapter: that you need to make conscious decisions about how you will live your life—decisions based on your values—and then you need to follow through on those decisions. For many activists, this seems harder to do with money than in other areas of life. I explain why in the next chapter, but first let’s talk about what poverty is and why it is a problem.
The Problem with Poverty
Poverty is the condition of not being able to get your important needs met, whatever those needs may be. What’s “important” is largely, but not entirely, up to you. Everyone needs food, shelter and the other necessities of life—including, I would add for U.S. activists, health insurance.4 Beyond these necessities, everyone has his or her own list of what’s important, be it a nice apartment in a good location, nice clothes, a nice car (or at least a reliable one), great music, great sports or outdoor gear, a gym membership or all of the above.
The problem with poverty is that it is not a viable long-term strategy. While a few years of bohemian poverty can be fun, few people can really tolerate poverty over the long term. Poverty is uncomfortable. It is also time-consuming. (For example, waiting on line at a free clinic, or having to take a ninety-minute bus ride to work every morning.) It saps your energy and, ultimately, limits your options. Not for nothing are the two most common adjectives used to describe extreme poverty “grinding” and “crushing.” Poverty wears you down and wears you out.
The situation gets even worse when, as is often the case, you’re not just poor, but in debt. Now, the metaphor is drowning, as in “drowning in debt,” or “I can’t get my head above water.” Few situations are more debilitating than chronic debt.
Poverty and debt deplete you, and ultimately sap your ability to do activism or anything else.
Poverty and Age
As bad as poverty and debt are when you’re young, they are even worse when you get older. The novelist Robert Musil perhaps put it best: “In every profession that is followed not for the sake of money but for love, there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to be leading into the void.”
Remember, from Chapter 9, that list of things that are important to you? It tends to get bigger in middle age, when it might include many of the appurtenances of a middle-class lifestyle, including a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, a college fund for your kids, a retirement fund for you and the ability to take care of your parents should they need help. All this, by the way, has nothing to do with selling out, and everything to do with common sense, meeting your obligations to yourselves and others and not being a burden on your loved ones. It also has to do with building the kind of happy, stable life that fosters a sustainable and productive activist career.
Of course, you can make choices, lots of choices. You can buy a small house or a co-op, instead of a big house with a big mortgage and big heating bills. You can drive an old car, or not use a car at all. You can have one kid, or no kids, instead of two kids. And you can ask that kid to attend a state college for a couple of years before transferring into the Ivy League. These kinds of compromises are recommended by the authors of two excellent books on money management, The Millionaire Next Door5 and Rich Dad, Poor Dad (see Bibliography for both). Every activist should read them.
Even if you strive to live the most frugal lifestyle possible, you will still need money. And let’s not forget the possibility, which we all hate to think about, of catastrophic bad luck, like being involved in a serious accident, becoming very sick or being victimized by a crime. Although it sounds callous to mention it, it would be irresponsible not to: money will make your recovery from these and other calamities much easier.
Money and Your Activist Career
To live in unnecessary poverty and debt is a form of denial, and denial is anathema to your goal of building a sustainable activist career. An important step to building such a career, therefore, is to own up to your present and future financial needs, and acknowledge, once and for all, that you’re not some kind of cosmic exception to the universal rule that all humans have material needs and need some kind of stable income to meet them.
This can be tricky stuff, psychologically. Like my student who burst into tears at the mere mention of the “m-word,” you may find it hard to own up to your materialistic side. If you do, it may be because you harbor some of the dysfunctional attitudes toward money I discuss in the next chapter.