Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Affordability Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

In recent years one of the themes that has emerged from my work with cooperatives groups is the challenge of dealing authentically, yet compassionately with the limits of diversity. It's a booger.

While almost all groups embrace diversity as a core value, it's apparent that its application is not open ended. That is, there are limits to how far you can (and should) stretch in service to that value, and there is more than a little delicacy around the examination of a live example—mainly because good intentioned, reasonable people reach limits at different places and because it always boils down to a specific person (or persons) at risk of being voted off the island.

While this shows up in a number of places: mental health, people with disabilities, an aging population, today I want to concentrate on affordability. Almost all groups have to wrestle with how to contain costs, and almost all groups face pressure (eventually, if not sooner) to modify financial requirements to accommodate desirable people who are straining to reach the bottom rung on the ladder (as defined by that group).

This request to make an exception may be rare enough—and the individual(s) involved may be attractive enough—that the group is gracefully willing to labor with it. However, there is an insidious tendency for any adjustments to the floor of affordability to rapidly become the new standard, and you can pretty well count on another request down the road that will ask if you can go lower still. Where does it end?

While no single request may appear unreasonable (note: I'm not saying that all should be approved; I'm only making the point that it may not be hard to appreciate why any particular request was made and why its advocates are hopeful of favorable treatment), the accumulation of such requests, as a whole, tends to create an environment of constant downward pressure on financial barriers to accessibility, and that this may have unpalatable side effects.

Whenever a group lowers the floor, it means accepting members who are right at the edge of being able to afford the lifestyle the group has determined it wants. That means adding voices who are likely to feel threatened by requests to enhance services, or tackle new projects, thereby leading (at least potentially) to one or more of the following not-so-attractive consequences:

1) There may be a concomitant diminishment of the upper end of the community's lifestyle, because the range of what members can afford has been capped at a lower level.

2) The more affluent members may go forward with some group activities on a pay-to-play basis (so that they won't be held back by the more limited means of the less well off), which means that some discretionary benefits of membership are not enjoyed by all—an awkward social dynamic that is a long step toward promoting divisive us/them energy in the group.

3) It's common for members to look to other circles in their lives for satisfaction that feels blocked at home, which dilutes the vibrancy of the community.

To be sure, the fact that a person joins the community when their wealth and income are limited does not mean they'll stay in that place. People can, and often do, grow into greater wealth and financial largess over time, such that limitations today no longer apply in the future. In such situations, they are the beneficiaries of the group's willingness to be flexible without occasioning any significant shift in lifestyle or community-supported activities.

On the other hand, there are folks who embrace voluntary simplicity to the point where they're purposefully avoiding the pursuit of greater financial flow (which choice I'm not criticizing; I'm just pointing out where it leads). Further, there are people who are simply unable to generate a greater financial flow in their life—perhaps because of disabilities, age, or lack of skill.

In contemplating these dynamics, I have two suggestions:

First, whenever you decide to create an exception, be sure to stay with the conversation long enough to determine explicitly whether you're creating a precedent (lowering the bar) or not. If you prefer to see your exception as a one-time deal, have the minutes reflect that this decision does not signal a change in the community's affordability standard, and that any future requests for similar exceptions are not guaranteed a similar response.

Second, define what you mean by affordability. Select objective, measurable criteria that approximate what you're willing to do in that regard and then stay the course—until and unless you decide to change the standard. If you rely solely on what feels right, you'll be scudding about like a leaf before the wind which, ironically, can be a kind of commitment to financial affordability that's hard to afford energetically.

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