13. Why Are Activists Poor?

Another book I recommend to all my students is Money Drunk, Money Sober by Mark Bryan and Julia Cameron (see Bibliography). It discusses how many people become poor because of their dysfunctional (and, as the title implies, addictive) attitudes and behaviors toward money. These “money addicts” fall into several categories, including . . .

• The Compulsive Spender: someone who gets an emotional “high” from spending.

• The Big Deal Chaser: a gambler who thinks he is always just around the corner from a big win, and so he doesn’t worry about managing his money or staying out of debt.

• The Maintenance Money Drunk: someone whose expenses keep growing, so she has to keep working harder and harder just to pay the bills.

• The Poverty Addict: someone who sees poverty as a virtue.

• The Cash Codependent: someone who impoverishes himself by giving money to a money addict.

You probably recognize one or more of these types of “money addiction” either in yourself or in other activists.

Jerrold Mundis, author of the classic debt-recovery book How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously (see Bibliography), makes the same point:

The core problem is simple: Repeated debt results from dysfunctional (or distorted) attitudes and perceptions about money and self. They are generally subconscious; we don’t even realize they’re there. Yet they rule our behavior and actions with the power of a dictator. It’s essential to recognize them for what they are.

His list of dysfunctional attitudes toward money is longer than Bryan and Cameron’s and includes: I Don’t Understand Money; When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping; I’m Entitled; Look at Me, Ma, I’m on Top of the World; Money Corrupts (equivalent to Bryan and Cameron’s Poverty Addict); $200 Worth of Love; Waiting for Godot (equivalent to The Big Deal Chaser); I’m a Special Case; Good People Help Others; and Yeah But I Still Want to Be a Kid.

Another interesting book is Why Are Artists Poor? by Hans Abbing6 (see Bibliography), an artist and economist at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Abbing takes 367 pages to answer his title question: “Why are artists poor?” I will distill an important part of his answer, relative to activists, into just five words: “Because they choose to be.”

This isn’t true for all activists, of course—especially not those who were born into poverty, or who suffer from a disability or illness that limits their ability to support themselves. But it is true for a great many activists who were born into middle- or upper-class families but have, in the course of their adult lives, dropped into poverty. Their poverty is voluntary.

I get more push-back from activists on the subject of voluntary poverty than on any other. Some point out that our society makes it extremely hard to earn a living doing activism; others, that there is a long list of employers they cannot work for ethically and jobs they cannot take. Some tell me that they cannot in good conscience participate in a capitalist system. All well and good, and I truly respect anyone who tries to take an ethical approach to earning a living.

At the same time, however, I think it’s important to acknowledge that these activists are indeed making choices. I do this not to shame or blame them, but as a way of empowering them to see their situation more clearly, so that they can make even better choices in the future. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” William Butler Yeats said; and if it is our privilege as activists to dream of a better world, it is also our responsibility to do the hard work of figuring out how to integrate our dreams into the real world around us, not only as a means of taking care of ourselves and those whom we love and are responsible for, but as a crucial step toward building that better world we all dream of.

I also find that many activists are poor for reasons other than ethics. Even activists with the most stringent ethical requirements should still be able to address these common causes of poverty:

1. Lack of Information

Personal finance is a specialty requiring knowledge of, at the very least, household budgeting, money management and investing. You also need knowledge not just of how to do these things, but the particular options you have for doing them, so that you can make wise choices.

People who are good with money tend to have made it a priority to acquire this knowledge. They get it from books, magazines, television shows, savvy relatives and friends and professionals.

People who are bad with money tend to just ignore the whole issue—and become poor as a result.

Needless to say, if you don’t have a lot of money to work with, you need to be even more informed about how you handle the small amount you have.

A good start to correcting this problem would be to read the money-related books listed in the Bibliography.

2. Lack of Commitment to Money Management

Yes, I know: personal finance is about the most boring thing around, and a distraction from your vocation. Still, it is like flossing your teeth: something you should do whether you like it or not.

Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, the authors of The Millionaire Next Door, conducted research that showed that people who are good “accumulators of wealth” spend an average of 8.4 hours per month managing their investments, while people who are poor wealth accumulators spend only around 4.6 hours. In other words, the more time you spend managing your money, the more money you are likely to have.

If you hate the whole topic of personal finance, I suggest taking a Zen approach: delve deeply into it and try to become one with it. Do a lot of reading, take a class, buy (and use) Quicken or another personal finance program, and talk with friends and family members who are good at it. (This could wind up to be a nice bridge-building activity you do with your folks.) You may discover that your dislike of personal finance was actually due to fear and confusion, and that, as you become more knowledgeable, the topic itself becomes more interesting and fun.

If not, well, sorry: you still have to do it.

3. The Difficulty of Juggling a Vocation and a Job

Another reason activists “choose” poverty is because it’s hard not to be poor when your vocation (i.e., activism) doesn’t pay well—or at all. That often means you’ll have to take a day job along with your activism; and holding two jobs, no matter how common a phenomenon in our over-materialistic and wage-depressed society, remains a difficult balancing act.

4. “Poverty Addiction”

Are activists “supposed” to be poor? I don’t think so. I hope you understand by now that choosing to be an activist and choosing to be poor are two separate choices, and that choosing poverty will generally make you a worse activist, not a better one. Money Drunk, Money Sober coauthors Bryan and Cameron were not writing specifically about activists, but I suspect that their description of the Poverty Addict category of money addiction will sound very familiar to some readers:

Repelled by the materialism of the American Dream, we strive for lives of austerity, only to find we have crossed an invisible line and become addicted to self-deprivation.

Lack of money gets us high: we feel martyred, anxious, virtuous, self-righteous and, yes, self-pitying. While smugly judging the “money-grubbing” all around us, we ourselves are ruled by money as well.

Obsessed with judgments of the shallowness around us, we fail to deepen and mature ourselves. In a sense, we remain children acted upon, not acting. Refusing to earn, to own, to husband and nurture our lives, we take spiritual pride in what amounts to an eternal adolescence, refusing to grow up and take responsibility for changing a system we may despise or accepting a world as it is and setting down roots. This would rob us of our position as outsiders, judges, and saints . . .


This is harsh stuff, so I won’t comment further, except to urge you to take your time in pondering this and the other information in this chapter, and to be relentlessly honest in determining whether any of it applies to you.

The solution to poverty addiction, according to Bryan and Cameron, is as follows:

Poverty Addicts need to unhook their sense of virtue from having no money and stop blocking their creativity with worry. . . . [I]t [is] necessary to set out minimums that [you] must spend in order to maintain a sense of health. . . . [There is] an unexpected shift in spiritual consciousness often occurs when we begin self-nurturing. A universe . . . that had long felt like a harsh and hostile place begins to be transformed into a gentler and more loving habitat. Many recovering Poverty Addicts have noted with some astonishment that as we begin to give to ourselves, we begin, also, to receive unexpected gifts from the universe.

In fact, recovering from a poverty addiction means not just receiving gifts from the universe, but giving them to the universe in the form of more powerful and sustained activism. Consider these facts:

1. Your being poor isn’t helping your movement or anyone else, except those who might want to exploit your poverty.

2. As you start to recover from your poverty addiction, you will begin to accumulate resources, including money, time and energy. You can then use those resources to be a more effective and influential activist than you ever were when you were poor.

3. You can also use your money to help build the green economy and to model your progressive values for those around you. You can, for instance, buy a hybrid car to replace your gas-guzzler, or solar panels for your home.

In the Money Goals List exercise at the end of this chapter, and elsewhere, too, please take the radical step of imagining a life for yourself that’s not lived in opposition to the acquisition of wealth, and in which the wealth you do acquire is used not just for your own betterment, but that of the world around you.

Dysfunctional attitudes toward, and behavior around, money are a serious impediment to long-term happiness and success, so if you have this problem I urge you to address it quickly and decisively. Whether you have an obvious problem or not, however, I urge you to consult the money-related books listed in the Bibliography, and discuss your financial situation with trusted and knowledgeable relatives, friends or advisors. And if you feel strong guilt, anger, fear or shame around the topic of money, I urge you to discuss those feelings with a therapist or other professional.

Activists choose poverty by choosing not to deal with the types of issues outlined in this chapter. But there is one choice that activists make that, perhaps more than any other, leads to poverty. I discuss that in the next chapter.

Free Help for Your Money Problems!

Many nonprofit agencies provide free or cheap personal finance classes and coaching. If you are in debt, talk to a nonprofit credit counselor or attend a Debtors Anonymous meeting. (Many so-called credit counselors are actually businesses that prey on people in debt, so be sure to choose a reputable nonprofit organization.) Those who are in debt should also read How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously, which is based on the Debtors Anonymous philosophy and methodology.

Money Goals List

Write down a list of your goals related to your lifestyle and material needs in as much detail as possible. First, figure out what kind of lifestyle you would like to be living . . .

• Next Year

• In Five Years

• In Ten Years

• In Twenty Years

• In Thirty Years

• In Forty Years

• In Fifty Years

• In Sixty Years

• In Eighty Years. (If this sounds ridiculous, it isn’t: lifespans in the Western world, at least, are continuing to rise. See, for instance, “100th birthdays may soon be the norm in rich nations: researchers,” from TodayOnline, February 21, 2006, which reports on research presented at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And, yes, increased longevity presents an additional, very strong argument for managing both your health and your money.)

More specifically, think about what you would like to own and what you would like to be able to do at each of those points in your life. Start by thinking about how much, and what kind of, activism you want to do, and what kind of impact you could make if you had a generous amount of money and time to devote to your activism. Then, think about other life goals, including health, relationships and other interests, including art, travel, sports, entertainment, etc. If you have or want to have children, think about the kind of life and opportunities you would like to give them. Also think about others you want to be able to take care of, including perhaps your parents as they get older. We’ll call this document your Money Goals List.

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