This morning, on one of my internet rabbit holes, I scrolled past a video where someone (I won't say it was a white man in his 20s, but it may have been a white man in his 20s) was ridiculing on people for "living like this and thinking it's comfortable" after seeing another young adult being excited about having all of his bills paid and expenses covered for the month, and still having a couple hundred left in the bank afterwards. I wanted to talk about that for a moment.
I've been reading a lot of abolitionist literature lately, which, if you know anything about abolitionist principles, they advocate for a heavy focus on community-based living. Abolitionists organize on behalf of the idea that so many of our problems either stem from our highly individualized society on behalf of things like the carceral state or capitalist principles, or can be solved by community-based organization and collective action. Though I would not call myself an abolitionist solely because I don't think I'm qualified to take on that label (see Mariame Kaba's thoughts on the matter), I firmly believe in these principles, and this is why this video struck such a chord with me. Maybe that sounds strange, but let me break this down to the micro level, as I believe we should do with so many more things.
I live in Philadelphia. The cost of living is steadily rising, and historically affordable areas are being gentrified. Minimum wage is still the federal minimum wage, $7.25. (Which would be over $24/hr accounting for inflation, and we can't even get $12 or $15. It's not us who are failing, and that's very obvious in things like the federal minimum wage.) On top of that, Philly is notorious for high city/local taxes. I moved here by choice for more opportunities that I couldn't get in the slightly-more-affordable Midwest, but that’s not everyone’s story. Many people were born here, and many will live here for their entire life. And why not? It's a wonderful city, and yet. And yet.
I have a pretty good job here! I'm a little limited because I don’t have a degree and my small business takes priority, which results in my spending time & money on something I can only hope will turn out later, but I'm comfortable. I nanny, so I'm lucky to have had the right references to let me work with a great family. But what if I didn't have those references? There are good jobs near me that pay above the minimum wage, but not all of them are accessible if you don't have a car, for instance (despite living in a city), or if I didn't have good references, or if I had a different background, maybe one with criminal charges (and going back to abolition, we are a heavily criminalized society with little distinction between the "good" and the "bad"), or if I had kids and my hours were less flexible. Not to mention that "above the minimum wage" is still settling when the minimum wage is far below where it should be and is not remotely sustainable.
In a month, my expenses include things like rent, utilities, car payments, upkeep for the car, insurance, dog food and meds, expenses for my business, therapy, phone bill, public transport, groceries, gas, student loans, meds, credit cards, doctors appointments, etc. I'm also lucky enough to have a partner in this! We have no kids and we chose to have our dog. We rent vs own, so even though rent is a monthly expense, there are no repairs to worry about. We have a one bedroom and we thrift about half of what we own. This is actually the first year I've had an emergency savings that hasn’t been touched and finally got to start a house fund! But what if things had gone differently this year? I had COVID, but my ER bill just so happened to be covered because someone else on my insurance plan had gotten surgery and already met our out-of-pocket deductible. Our dog could’ve gotten hurt. My partner could’ve gotten COVID too. Our rent could have gone up too much. My partner was in a hit-and-run this year. What if that had caused more extensive injury? It could have been anything, really.
Now, what if I was someone else? Someone with kids? Someone who owns a home that is rapidly depreciating, probably due to gentrification? Someone with an illness that requires more care and doctor’s visits? Someone who couldn’t work this year out of fear for their health? What if I wasn't young enough to still be on my parent's insurance plan? My student loans are relatively low, comparatively, but those are incredibly detrimental to many people who went to college seeking a degree that would help them in the workforce, only to find that to be an expensive myth. I received all of my stimulus checks this year, but what if I hadn't? What if I were undocumented or, like some of my friends, living on my own but documented under my parent's income due to college? Again, it could be anything.
The point of this isn't to fear-monger, but to make the point that we exist in a system that intentionally creates a vast divide between those who have wealth, and those who don’t. Even most of those we’d consider upper middle class are at risk of losing everything if a family member contracted an illness like cancer, for instance. Despite it being easy to see those that fall into categories above us as the problem, there is a wide gap between upper middle class, for instance, and multi-millionaires or billionaires. To me, a two-car garage and a second fridge sound fancy, but that income bracket is still at-risk to fall victim to one of life under capitalism's many pitfalls. It's the same misunderstanding that causes people to feel outraged when we say things like "tax the rich", not realizing that they, well, aren't part of the rich in question.
Our system is also one that uplifts those who exploit and profit from the people underneath them. Billionaires did not accrue that wealth naturally, and yet it permeates all aspects of our culture, from rigging pharma prices to influencing elections, putting elected officials into office that will only continue to encourage the problem, in what is essentially an oligarchy system. Your enemy is not the person who has made peace with living on the $200-$300 in the bank at the end of the month. This isn’t a delusion, it’s the sheer survival and self-awareness of being able to say, "Hey, my bills are paid and that's all I need right now". Your true enemies are any that directly profit from a system of exploitation. Landlords, billionaires, pharmaceutical CEO’s, gas and oil companies, politicians, the carceral system, perpetuators of the school-to-prison pipeline, the list could go on and on.
And if I want to move towards the community I want to see? Beyond my little house fund, I don’t really need more than that in the bank. Most of us cannot financially prepare for every emergency, and so I tend to just put money back into organizations that alleviate that for the community. At the end of the day, am I proud of my little house fund? Absolutely! Would it be gone in a second if something happened to my family? Also yes. I know that, and I also know that I could never hope to save enough money to support myself in the event that something did happen to me beyond the day-to-day things that I can deal with. I know this practice can easily be seen as being naïve, as not wanting to help yourself, as not being prepared, but the reality is, what do I need beyond my bills paid, my family taken care of, our little creative dreams still alive?
One day, I want a country that revolves around the communities that compose it rather than the businesses that exploit it. A few great women in my life have taught me that it’s better to care, even if you get hurt, because you don’t want to be the one doing the hurting. I hope if I ever need it, my community will care for me because I cared for them first, not out of a selfish desire to see a return in my investment, but out of the knowledge that we are sometimes unable to care for ourselves in the way that life under capitalism demand. While I am able, I would rather take care of my community than try to save for an emergency that realistically, I could not handle myself anyway. I recognize that, right now, I have enough privilege and resources to take the first trusting step and be a small part of something larger and more lasting than myself. Trust is double-sided, and if I can spend these years of my life giving without expectation, supporting local businesses and local artists who share my vision of a community-based world and, like me, just want to keep their creative dreams afloat, and generally take care of the people in the place that I live, I can live secure in the knowledge that I would not be alone should I ever need help in the future. I can only hope my rambling has painted that in a new light.
If you're interested in learning more about abolitionist principles, I highly recommend Mariame Kaba's collection of essays, "We Do This 'Til We Free Us". It's available in many places online, but I will also never pass up the opportunity to recommend The Spiral Bookcase, my favorite local bookstore.