I grew up with the expectation that I should strive to financially support myself and my family all by myself, regardless of what my partner might earn. Why? Death, divorce, disability, disease, you name it. Life is risky. Anything can happen and often does. My work ethic was my personal safety net to insure me against potential financial disaster. I thought as long as I could work, I would be safe.
And then one day, I couldn’t work anymore. Poor health and severe post-partum depression set in after my daughter was born, and I left the workforce to care for myself and my new baby. When I suddenly realized I no longer had the self-sufficiency that working meant to me, my depression deepened. I felt helpless without a means of earning money. I hated depending on anybody, and my stress compounded with financial insecurity.
In truth, I wasn’t financially insecure at all. I was actually deeply supported by my husband, family, friends and collegues. I had a spouse with a job, some savings, maternity leave and COBRA health insurance. Those people and resources helped me get better, and two years later I joined the workforce again.
Here’s what I learned from that experience: When I thought what I needed was more cash, what I really sought was freedom from financial anxiety. I didn’t want to worry about if we were going to have enough to pay the rent just because I couldn’t pull my weight at the moment, but I also thought that caring for myself was a luxury I could not afford. What turned the dial down on my financial fear and worry was recognizing that I was part of a community that was not going to let me fall through the cracks. It turns out that my self-sufficiency — my confidence in my own resourcefulness to be able to care for myself and family — had a limit, and that limit was me. My bootstraps could only pull me up so far. To transcend the limits of my self, I needed to see that I was connected to and supported by others — even financially.
It turns out that even people who do have ample bank accounts feel financially insecure. A study from early 2011 by Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy found that even the super rich “still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess.” The average net worth of the people in this study was $78 million. If $78 million didn’t make someone feel financially secure, then what would?
Our instinct in times of financial hardship is to narrow our focus to the survival of ourselves or our family. Unfortunately, it also ends up narrowing our focus of solutions to what we can do all by ourselves: cut expenses or increase income. Ironically, what creates the financial security and financial wellbeing that we actually seek lies outside the small, narrow focus in the larger networks of communities. With more resources to access, there is also more flexibility in how to respond.
But right now, our communities and governments are going through the same downward spiral of scarcity, cost-cutting and income-raising dilemmas we have at home. This is the time to make investments in our capacity to support each other. Instead of debating what to cut and who to tax, we can ask ourselves:
- How would we feel if we knew that the community supporting us was as big as a town, city, nation or a continent?
- What would we do differently if we knew that our basic financial needs would be met through our community networks and supports when we hit rough spots such as unemployment, caring for sick family members, our own ill health?
- What government policies can create the conditions in which we will feel supported by the financial strength of an entire community until we can regain our self-sufficiency?
- What can we do now to dial down our collective financial fears? Who needs to be involved and how?
I’m not suggesting that we don’t need to cut expenses or raise taxes, but those are actions that need to be taken in the context of a vision we are trying to achieve. We are a country of unquestionable, tremendous wealth, and that wealth was supposed to be a proxy for financial security. But none of us feel financially secure, even if we have the wealth. If having the wealth doesn’t do it, then what would actually free us from financial fear?
Here are two things we can do with public policies to create conditions that lessen financial fear and increase our overall financial security:
- Narrow the bandwidth for wealth— The wider the gap in wealth, the more room there is for comparison and stronger feelings of financial inadequacy. It’s like trying to keep up with the Joneses but always failing because there will forever be someone with (lots) more money than you. The more narrow the room for comparison, the less inadequate we feel. Plus, when we narrow the bandwidth, the fall from fiscal grace is shorter and the climb back up not so steep. Policies that narrow income and wealth gaps (such as progressive taxation) can do this.
- Fulfill universal needs without contingencies for income — Our need to be able to care for each other is universal, not limited to those at the poverty line. If the need is universal, then so should be the program. Designing policies that help anyone who needs it, not just those who fall below certain income thresholds, creates a public good for everyone even though it will only be used by those who need it when they need it. One existing example is the Family and Medical Leave Act which requires employers of a certain size to offer unpaid leave to workers caring for new or ailing family members. Workers are eligible regardless of their income, and while anyone can envision a situation where they might need to use it, only some will need to at any given time. Strengthening this program allows us to focus on supporting the people who support others in need, so that there isn’t a competition between income and care. It supports a community’s ability to care for itself.
Maybe our government solutions to provide income supports (such as unemployment or welfare) have been incomplete in part because of our focus on getting individuals back on their feet. Investments in the community’s capacity to care for each other could top off those efforts, because it’s the supportive relationships that will give us the financial security we truly seek.