If you aren’t one of Renee Rushka’s neighbors in Bethel, Connecticut, you probably don’t know about the chain of events that took place there this past December. They were small and quiet and didn’t change the world, but they changed the lives of the people they touched. It started a few weeks before Christmas, when Rushka was a few dollars short of what she needed to pay for her groceries. Someone behind her in line offered to cover what Rushka couldn’t. The following week she posted a thank you on the neighborhood’s Facebook page. There was an immediate flood of replies, she says, from people asking whether her family needed anything else to get through the holiday. There was also one woman asking if Rushka could recommend resources, because she was struggling too.
“She was a single mom with a six-year-old son,” Rushka says, adding, “she was just coming out of an abusive relationship.” So Rushka decided to see if she could organize some of the folks who had offered to help her into helping this woman instead. She ended up with a minivan full of donations — some used, some new — of everything from clothes for mom to toys for her son. Rushka describes the people who met her as coming from a range of social classes, but notes that many were middle class or lower middle class. A lot of them, she says, commented that they were helping because they too had struggled. “The woman was crying when I met her,” Rushka recalls. “I told her honestly, I’m an addict in recovery and a lot of people have helped me out.”
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This kind of story doesn’t end up in the news as often as descriptions of dramatic convenience store robberies or violence-plagued low-income neighborhoods — but it’s a known, common thread within these communities. Poor people hold one another up. For decades, if not forever, poor communities have not been able to count on the government for support. SNAP (formerly known as “food stamps”) only provides about $1.40 per person per meal, and in the poorest states in the country, less than 4 percent of poor families receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, often referred to as “welfare”). Perhaps this lack of sufficient government assistance is why a 2010 study by researchers at University of California, Berkeley and University of Toronto discovered that lower-income people are more inclined toward thinking on a community level than people from other classes.
In the study, participants were told to gather as many points as possible. They were given an initial number of points and the option to keep the points for themselves or to give a portion of their points to an unseen partner. Anything they gave to their partner would be tripled, and then their partner would have the option to share a portion of their new, higher total of points with the study participant. Of course, there was no actual partner; the experiment was a measure of prosocial trust. Would participants trust their partner enough to share a sizable portion of their own points so they could both leave with a bigger total payout, or would they keep their points to themselves?
The results showed lower-class participants gave up more of their points in hopes that their partners would share a larger amount of their total, supporting an overall hypothesis that the increased generosity seen in low-income people results from intra-communal reliance. The lower-income participants needed a larger payout than they could get on their own, so they had to trust their partner to support them. As a result, need spurred generosity.
The tendency of low-income people to help others in need is something you can observe in the real world all the time, if you know where to look. You see it in the form of family hand-me-downs, diapers donated to a neighbor in need, or rideshares to the grocery store. Right now in Boston, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is working to formalize this phenomenon by creating supportive microcommunities within vulnerable neighborhoods. “Our organizing motto is ‘block by block,'” says Executive Director Andrea James. She describes a system in which women reach out to neighbors to find out what they need in order to thrive, whether that’s a food pantry, a bail fund, a community garden, or a ride to the polls. It is a grassroots pushback against the government failure to provide, or at least provide enough, for its most vulnerable citizens. Led by women with criminal backgrounds — the exact kind of people often labeled “underprivileged” — this grassroots welfare project exemplifies that same generosity and trust observed by the researchers at Berkeley in 2010, and by Rushka last Christmas.
These community-focused habits are spreading outside of low-income communities, with mixed results. One of the better-known examples, The Buy Nothing Group, was specifically modeled after a poor community that the founders witnessed while working a relief mission in Nepal. In theory, the tenets of the Buy Nothing Project are simple: nothing is sold or traded. Each item is given freely, with no expectation of reward. Participation spans class, and at times, can work beautifully. I personally owe a lot to my local Buy Nothing Group: Members helped furnish my home, helped me with diapers for my daughters, and even provided food grown in backyard gardens.
It was a beautiful experience — but it was different from the giving and receiving that takes place within the confines of low-income communities. When people gave or received items in my Buy Nothing community, it was not often driven by need. Items are supposed to go to whomever the giver wishes, using whatever criteria she decides. Some people went so far as to state that they would not give to anyone who openly expressed needing something; they found that discussing need was distasteful.
That’s where the appropriation of low-income community tools became problematic.
Some people do need more than others. Pretending otherwise introduces an element of shame that doesn’t exist within low-income giving circles, in which everyone understands what they are providing and why. What’s worse, it introduces the idea that need is a weakness, rather than a normal and reciprocal part of human existence. The expectation that people can take when they need and give when they have plenty is essential to how societies work. If it’s been a long time since you needed something, it’s easy to forget that. But that’s not a luxury that most low-income people have.
Generosity is a beautiful human trait. It’s also a survival tactic. If economically stable communities are going to start implementing the survival tactics of the poor for other reasons — whether it’s to pass the time, meet their neighbors, or just get rid of stuff — they need to recognize that there are still people who rely on community resourcing. And they need to acknowledge that these neighborhood-sharing programs have their roots in low-income communities, whose members have been helping each other stay afloat long before it was trendy.