Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Strong to Make the Safety Net

About 12 years ago I recall the first time FIC discussed the potential for intentional communities providing a safety net for people with special needs. Under Reagan's tenure in the '80s, the federal government went through a massive policy change whereby support for disadvantaged groups was deinstitutionalized. With the Boomer population about to enter retirement age, it didn't take a math degree to predict the coming train wreck. Why couldn't communities pick up some of the slack?

There's no doubt that communities are well structured to offer this kind of help (think about the challenges of aging, mental health, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, recovery from trauma—there are myriad populations that could benefit from the dignity and caring distinctly possible in group settings). That said, I want to explore the tender dynamics of why it's hard to take that very far, unless the community makes an explicit choice to go in that direction.

To be sure, there are a number of communities that have chosen to define themselves based on services to disadvantaged segments of the population. Here's a sampling of some well-established examples:

o Camphill Villages
Inspired by the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, these groups offer residential support for the developmentally disabled and have been around for 50 years. There are currently 13 offerings in North America, with others abroad.

o Gould Farm
This community in Monterey MA provides residential therapeutic treatment for the mentally ill. It's been around since 1913—two wall calendars short of a century!

o Innisfree Village
This community in Crozet VA offers support for people with intellectual disabilities and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

o L'Arche
Inspired by the writings of Jean Vanier, this movement started in France in 1964, got a foothold in the US in 1972, and has 17 residential communities in America today, servicing those with intellectual disabilities.

With these solid examples, couldn't the wider Communities Movement do more on a less formal basis? Perhaps.

Addition by Subtraction
For the most part, intentional communities aim to create a superior lifestyle for their members by purposefully downshifting into the slower lanes of traffic. Community living encourages members to get off the production and consumption treadmill, to slow down, build smaller houses, nurture connections
, and share more. Following this path leads to less doing and more being, crafting a quality life on fewer resources. Sure people want security, but this is increasingly being defined as the quality of one's relationships, rather than the quantity of one's bank account.

Thus, even as communities aspire to meet their own financial needs, they actively work to whittle down what those needs are, and don't particularly aspire to make much more than they need.

While most groups willingly stretch to help their own members in need, it is uphill asking communities to set aside resources (or work harder to generate those resources) for the purpose of creating surplus to aid unknown future members. Groups almost never run short of good ideas about how to put surplus resources to use. And if, for some reason, they're ideas are fully funded, they're far more likely to ease off the gas and smell more roses now, then to keep chasing dollars and deferring enjoyment of the life's flower garden to some uncertain future.

Digesting this, it's understandable that communities rarely get excited about tackling additional responsibilities than the ones they've already signed on for. In trying to pioneer sustainable and compassionate culture, they don't want to swamp their life boat. While they're typically happy to be an inspiration for other groups focusing on the needs of disadvantaged populations, they're not likely to take a bigger bite of that particular apple than they already have in their mouth.

The double whammy here is that the disadvantaged groups themselves are, by definition, probably incapable of creating their own communities, and are thus at the mercy of new groups seeing the opportunities in meeting the needs of that client base as a way to ground the community's mission. While some do, it's not enough to make up for the (in)difference of contemporary public funding.

We need a different answer, and I think our best hope is for groups to be an inspiration for the neighborhoods and wider communities in which they're embedded, where the support that intentional communities extend to their members is inspiring for how the many can humanely support the few—without reliance on governmental subsidies.

In an effort to fashion better safety nets, I don't think we need communities to be salting away more dollars, so much as we need communities to be peppering their neighbors with ideas about how we can create robust services on the local level, built mainly on connection and common sense—giving up on our dependency to a connection with common cents.

Not only do I think we can do it, I think we must.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do IC groups on average not contribute to social security, IRAs, 401Ks etc,-- if not as folks age may face challenges for a # of fronts.