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Privilege, Inequality, Charity, Activism – How Do We Save Our Country?

December 6, 2017

Last winter was rough.  In November, Trump won the general election, in December the electoral college confirmed this, and in January he was sworn in. This winter, the GOP passes a tax bill that contributes to the wealth concentration and purports trickle down economics as the solution. Simultaneously, they work to eliminate the Net Neutrality protections, without even pretending it is for the benefit of the average American.  It isn’t quite the blow that the election of Trump was, but it has my worry ramping up.  What is happening to our country?

I’ve been thinking/reading/listening a lot about wealth inequality, privilege, “middle class”-ness, and what it all means. It is possibly ridiculous, but this is the first year that I can recognize to myself and the world “we are not middle class”.  I can provide mitigating arguments (But, high cost area! My house is small, I promise! We are frugal (except where we aren’t). So many taxes! My life is soooo middle-class-normal!).  I can quite easily provide a story to explain why we should count as middle class – but it is not reality.  It just isn’t.  We aren’t the “super rich”, rejoicing about the Donor Relief Act that looks like it will pass, and we are absolutely not beyond worrying about financial security in the long run.  But we aren’t struggling (for now) and we aren’t middle class. It isn’t that I think we shouldn’t have a life where we can feel financially secure. Rather, I wish most Americans had this privilege. I think that is possible with the right policies.  We can at least set that as a common goal and move in that direction, as a country.

So far in this post, I’ve established two things: 1) The country is doing things that do not align with my values and 2) We have more money than we need or deserve (and “deserving” or hard work is beside the point).  We are privileged. What does this mean?

It means I’m paying more attention to giving as a start. Charity is mentioned often in personal finance blogs, but the amounts are usually not. I assume the lack of transparency is to avoid bragging or to avoid judgement, or both. I’ll admit flat-out, we have not donated much to charity in the past.  I doubt we donated more than $250 in any previous year.  We weren’t brought up in families that gave to charity and we do not feel wealthy (despite the evidence), so it wasn’t something we did. In 2017, largely as a response to the Trump election, we committed to donating more.  It is not much, all things considered.  In order to contribute to transparency, I’ll share that my target 2017 charity budget is $1,200 and we will hit it. This is not remotely worthy of bragging, and arguably worthy of judgement considering our spending, not to mention our income.  Still, I think people should talk more about this in the PF space, and consider sharing rough amounts or percentages – particularly if you give a lot! Hearing other bloggers talk about it helps to normalize it – it did for me.   As someone who watches spending closely, even this very modest amount was not easy to wrap my mind around. Still, seeing where charity falls in relation to other spending categories, it is a step in the right direction.

Still, any amount of giving that is possible for us feels wildly insufficient. It feels like a teaspoon of water thrown onto the fire.  How do we make meaningful change?  How do you boil the ocean?  Giving away everything except basic necessities is one response, but still is just maybe a cup of water on a fire.  Spoiler alert –  I’m not going to this extreme. We want to start a family, and we will selfishly work to hold onto our security.

Activism is another answer. It feels so ineffective. It feels like we are talking to ourselves.  It feels like no one is listening and nothing is happening.  My Congress-people are good and doing what I want them to do, but they aren’t able to make big wins (and often not even small wins). For example, what specifically has the Occupy movement accomplished?  What has any movement in recent years accomplished?  How do we accomplish things?!?!  Do we just have to keep trying, wait for the elections, vote and get out the vote? We’re stuck with limiting the damage, which is important – but frustrating.

Do we give up and move to some more reasonable country?  (Then wait and hope late stage capitalism won’t eat up that country too?)  And, something of a side note, how do people reconcile the concept of Financial Independence with all of this?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2017 11:18 am

    On the charity numbers, we’re on the same wavelength. I was thinking about starting to share our numbers for accountability. I’d hesitated in the past but I think there are more good reasons to share than not, and your mentioning that seeing numbers from other bloggers helping you makes it seem more palatable.

    On the country, I feel the same. But I think we can do things. If we all do some activism, it has to add up and make a difference. It must! If it doesn’t … I don’t want to contemplate leaving the country because dammit, we worked hard to get here! But honestly it’s been like one step forward and two steps backward and it’s incredibly frustrating.

    • December 6, 2017 11:52 am

      Numbers, percentages, or even just talking about it is useful in my opinion – whatever you are comfortable with can’t hurt.

      I think the surge of activism really is limiting damage right now. So at least we get the one step forward, even if we get the two steps back at the same time…

  2. December 6, 2017 11:36 am

    I am planning on doing a more thorough charity post next week, but my general approach has been donating ~10% of my net income, including activism donations. It’s high enough to feel painful but is not unmanageable or feel too uncommon (I grew up around a religious community that took tithing really seriously).

    We definitely have slacked on the activism front. I feel like my money is more useful than my complete lack of community organizing skills. I plan to GOTV for the upcoming competitive governor’s race, but otherwise our state is solidly blue and my reps are very liberal and I have learned dealing with local politics makes me angry 80% of the time. So there’s that.

    On everything else I have a “put your mask on first” and “don’t hate the player hate the game” approach. We don’t plan to leave the US anytime soon (in part because as a PoC I’ve actually found traveling to other countries even more unsettling than here). But we do have feelers out just in case: I’ve pushed Fiancé to get his Irish citizenship and am researching immigration requirements for spouses. We’re planning to have kids so I feel no guilt in taking whatever steps I need to to make sure they grow up safe.

    • December 6, 2017 11:49 am

      Sharing a 10% level is helpful, because it shares a “norm” that is less common outside of religious circles. Looking forward to your upcoming charity post!

      I agree my money is more useful than my efforts in a very-very-blue area, although I like the “sister district” projects and also wish I could do more.

      We have no obvious paths to citizenship elsewhere, so leaving would be pretty drastic and is mostly at the pipe dream level.

  3. December 6, 2017 1:16 pm

    I won’t know what % of our income we donate until we do taxes. (And even then DH probably won’t add up all our non-deductible contributions.) I know it is less than 10% of our income. I also know it’s more than 1K, because we gave 1K to DC2’s school already this year in the form of gift cards!

    Yesterday I bought some tampons for DC1’s school’s holiday drive (well, actually, I didn’t buy them for DC1’s school because their holiday drive was too public and I would have had to give an email address and actually go to the store, AND they didn’t have tampons listed with the soap and toothpaste etc. So instead I dug out the link to DC1’s school last year and bought stuff off their amazon wishlist instead.) On Monday I gave $25 to Gwenn Burud’s campaign based on a tweet about her opponent saying something terrible. Last week I gave $1 to McMansion Hell as part of patreon. I also gave $50 (two $25 donations) to Donors Choose. Also this past Monday we gave another $75 donation along with our check for DC2’s $75 so that some other kid can go on the orchestra field trip (we previously gave $100 to that instead of buying disgusting HFCS chocolate bars for their fundraiser, but the fundraiser defrays the costs for everyone and cannot pay for specific people). One of the things about being rich is that now when I feel like giving to something random, I just give $25 and don’t even have to think about it. And it helps the pain go away. Before we were rich, we would do all of our donating in December and July based on our finances at those times and ignore all the little requests we got in between.

    Swingleft is a great place to donate! (Though not tax-deductible!)

    • December 7, 2017 6:53 am

      Oh, and I gave $50 on Tuesday to one of my (Fullbright graduate) students’ charities– a girls’ school in Afghanistan. I knew I was forgetting something.

      • December 7, 2017 8:07 am

        Very fun to just give freely whereever you feel like it! Thanks for sharing and for talking about giving on your blog regularly!

  4. December 6, 2017 1:24 pm

    For me, it was getting married and seeing our combined incomes and net worth that made me feel no longer middle class. I was clearly deluding myself before, but that really kicked it in.

    We’ve started donating 1% of gross income to charity and then another few hundred dollars to non-deductible causes. (We do a percentage of gross rather than net because it’s easier to calculate. I want to raise it to 2% in the next few years.) Last fall, we made a DAF contribution that amounted to 1% of our 2017 incomes and expected 2018 income. Our thought is to actually continue using the DAF even though we would be unlikely to itemize going forward because there is still value in donating appreciated shares (saving capital gains taxes) and it helps keep us accountable to making the donations. I’ve also donated time – I volunteered at least once a week with the local VITA (low income tax prep) program for much of this year, which was really eye-opening.

    Someone in our local city council pledged to donate their income above the median income to help with the homeless and show their commitment to the cause. That is far more than I am willing to do though.

    My parents never really gave to charity and I doubt they do anymore now than they did before.

    We definitely discuss the moving to another country idea fairly regularly, but for economic reasons, we’d rather stay here for a while yet… It’s a really complicated decision though and not one to be taken lightly. Definitely one of my big pushes for FI though is to take the economics off the table for that.

    • December 6, 2017 3:33 pm

      1% of gross is a really great start! pledging all income above the median is fantastic, but something that I could not manage giving our housing costs.

      T is less excited about this charitable spirit because he still feels like we don’t have much. I understand the feeling, but the numbers are compelling.

      • December 6, 2017 4:05 pm

        I like % of income as a metric as well because it allows you to scale up or down depending on how much you make in a year. It also serves as a nice benchmark because statistically lower income people seem to give a higher % of their income than higher income people. I read it on a now-defunct blog (Where’s My Trust Fund).

  5. Jane permalink
    December 6, 2017 4:25 pm

    I’m currently donating about 3% of my gross income, and my employer has a ludicrously generous matching program so effectively all my non-political donations have been doubled. After I’d maxed out all my retirement account contributions a few years ago, I started increasing the amounts I put to charity every year with raises and bonuses and such.

    I also track my spending, because I’m working towards Financial Independence in the next year or two, and what I actually spend is critical for knowing my target and safe withdrawal amount. From that lens, charitable/political giving is about 11% of my yearly spend. (FWIW, I’m also in a very high housing cost area in LA, and housing is ~47% of my spend. Ouch.)

    Once I reach FI/RE, my plan is monetary donations will go way way down, but I’ll give much more of my time.

    Thanks for raising this. I’d also recently noticed and was bothered that I’d see PF bloggers with 6 figure incomes and 50% savings rates with zero budget for charity.

    • December 6, 2017 5:00 pm

      Congratulations to having charity at 11% of your spend in a high cost area!

      • Jane permalink
        December 6, 2017 5:05 pm

        TBH, not having kids makes it all infinitely easier. Who knows what choices I’d make otherwise.

  6. December 7, 2017 4:32 pm

    We are definitely middle class I’d say even if it doesn’t feel like it. I’m not sure how much we actually typically give in a year – probably between $100-200? Which is like … 0.1% of gross income?

    I too sometimes struggle with these thoughts – shouldn’t I give up everything and devote my life to helping others? Yesterday I read an interview with a local person who runs a charity and is a little bit of a local Twitter celeb for it – she’s very outspoken about her cause. It was interesting, she does it full time and makes nothing, but admitted that the sale of their house is what enabled her to do this (though no numbers were shared). I’m not sure what her current living situation is, though.

    • December 11, 2017 8:34 am

      Full time helping others – that’s amazing. Is charitable giving something that people talk about in NZ? I wonder if cultural attitudes are similar.

  7. Michele permalink
    December 8, 2017 7:03 pm

    Thanks for writing this post. We also significantly increased our giving this year as a reaction to the political threats to the poor, immigrants and people of color. We’re at about 5% of our gross income – plus we got to take advantage of an amazing limited time 200% matching offer from my husband’s employer. It felt really great to be able to give large gifts to a number of great charities.

    Appreciate your focus on activism too – I’m a policy advocate for a living, and I just want to highlight that people speaking up really does make a difference – we really thought Obamacare was a goner but through the protest and activism of people across the nation, we were able to save it. Saddened by the tax bill, but we do have to celebrate the wins too. Please keep speaking out

    • December 9, 2017 9:00 am

      That’s great – company matching makes it even more effective!

      I think that ESPECIALLY people in red districts / states have a voice to help limit the damage, but we all can do something.

      The bottom line is that I don’t think any level of charity will ever be enough. The structural inequality and the system needs to be changed. That is a long and slow process without any clear map, and that is what frustrates me.

  8. FEED yourself, too permalink
    December 9, 2017 3:49 pm

    This is going to move in a different direction. Supporting advocacy with your money is great; my husband and I have given well more than 10% every year, and we inspired family to add Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to their giving this year.

    But I would add two important things:
    1. You gotta keep up your spirit and
    2. You are stronger and more clear about achieving your goals in a group.

    In our case, we changed churches and joined an interfaith protest group. Our original church was fine—nice older folks with intellectual goals, good hearts and strong support for people of color and LGBTQ members. But in the past few years, they fought more and more and it was not healthy for any of us. We tried to help it get healthier, and when the angry beams looked like they were turning our way, we moved on to a church with people of many races and gender orientations. We all hug and sing, and I always feel more ready for all the nuttiness afterwards. We’ve protested some important issues both within the larger church and in our community. We’ve supported people affected by the fires (in Northern California) and other, more personal challenges.

    Does it have to be a church? Gosh, no. But churches do meet weekly at a very convienient time. It feeds me and gets me through the week. Find a group that can do that for you! It will make a tremendous difference in your stamina, because getting things on track is not going to be quick.

    • December 11, 2017 8:35 am

      Thanks for this comment – such a good point about community and self-care.

  9. hypatia cade permalink
    December 10, 2017 6:10 pm

    I’m not a PF blogger but I read them and I follow many of the ideas about managing life towards a position of financial independence (though I like my job and don’t see quitting in my immediate future). We budget, save aggressively, live below our means, etc. I would consider us upper middle class based on what I know about income statistics, though it doesn’t feel that way when we are looking at our spending choices compared to our neighbors. That said, we also give away 10% of our income to some mix of social justice and charitable/religious organizations (split fairly equally between church, local organizations, national organizations, and international organizations). We also give politically but that counts differently. Somewhere about now we do a check to see if we’ve been keeping up throughout the year with our goals and write checks to catch up if we haven’t. We rarely give to random requests throughout the year, mostly preselecting organizations and giving. I will say when we started giving we weren’t at 10% and we added 1%/year to get there. I agree that 10% is enough to be noticeable (I would have a LOT more disposable fun income if we didn’t give) and still be affordable (it doesn’t affect our necessities or retirement savings).

    • December 11, 2017 8:38 am

      For now, I don’t count political giving all that differently, but I can see why you would. Adding 1% a year seems reasonable to build a habit, just like they recommend for retirement savings.

      Giving more wouldn’t affect our retirement savings or necessities, or actually really even our discretionary. We try to minimize discretionary spending in any case, but we don’t say “we will only spend X”. We just spend the minimum amount that we need to be comfortable. It would most likely impact our mortgage pre-payments and any possible future 529 contributions. Given the high cost of our house, it is still hard to sacrifice that.

  10. December 16, 2017 9:28 am

    My charitable giving used to be so organized! I never hit my goal of 10%, but i scheduled weekly, monthly and annual contributions to a slew of organizations. It was easier somehow to commit to $x a week than to $x*52 at the end of the year — go figure. And then of course there were the political donations and various in-the-moment contributions.

    Then it all got messy. I stopped my weekly contribution to the food bank in order to send it to family who were in bad place. I cut back on the monthly and annual contributions in order to send more, and to cover repairs (massive repairs, as it turned out). When I realized this spring that Spouse and I were both likely to be unemployed before year’s end, I cut out all contributions — even to family. (Complicated. It’s complicated, and messy.)

    I also think our country is a sad mess on greased rails to disaster, economic, political, and ecological, and that Spouse and I have more resources than 95% of our fellow citizens; now I also feel that I’m a jerk for not contributing to at least put on the damn brakes. But I’m afraid of what happens if we can’t find work, if we can’t afford COBRA, if the COBRA runs out…


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