Common Purse?

A writer I referred to in an earlier post remarked about a group of adults living together in New York City, pooling their resources. It was an aside to a discussion of the decline of community in the US.

It’s a mistake to regard such arrangements as weird or novel–they simply go by another name. Here are some contemporary examples:

  • Families. Husband and Wife both work these days, and in many families young adult family members live under the same roof and contribute.
  • College Fraternities. Students share a house, pool resources for meals and services.
  • Religious Orders. Monks and nuns often live together in a “monastic enclosure” or house where work and expenses are paid out of a common fund.
  • Roommates. In academic and urban settings, singles share a suite of rooms to save on rent.
  • Ashrams. There are a number of ashrams in the US where people pool resources to participate in a spiritual community.
  • Group Homes. Many charities operate group homes to support vulnerable people or as half-way houses for people who are learning to live independently.

You could probably think of more examples of common ways that Americans form affinity groups to support one another in meeting basic needs for food, shelter, and leisure time. It’s not the anomaly that it might seem at first.

America has drifted away from some traditions that supported the instinct to combine resources for the common good. In the 20th Century, men organized clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, the VFW, and the American Legion. These clubs provided networks of mutual benevolence and social contacts while doing public service. In the 21st Century most of these clubs struggle to attract new members.

Country Clubs organized around Golf, Tennis, Pickleball, and other sports seem to be holding their own, but the focus has shifted to the sport, and away from the mutual benevolence of a strong social network.

Volunteer Fire Companies were once the working man’s equivalent of a social club. Members would develop close personal relationships while training to fight fires. They experience a special bond because the rely on each other to be safe while facing danger. But the burden of increased risks, daunting training requirements, and the athleticism needed to perform the firefighting role have combined with a decline in the social motivations making it difficult to attract new younger members. It’s less common for a person to live and work in the same community. Commuting and changes of employment take their toll.

Slow change, which happens over decades, easily escapes our attention. The breakdown of these formerly common social networks of interdependence and community is only clear retrospectively and maybe only to old-timers like me.

I don’t think the change is for the good. I believe that some of what divides us politically is the illusion that we can do without parts of our society, relegating them to a lower status. The nation, each state, and our municipalities are “common purses” that exist to serve the common good. Some would privatize all of it, thinking that they would prefer to pay only for the goods and services they desire without regard for social good. The benefit of the common purse is not appreciated.

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