As long as there have been societies there have been people within those societies falling on difficult times. Be it due to illness, exhaustion, or even the death of a loved one, there will always come a time in a person’s life when their ability to contribute or even care for themselves and their family will come under strain. In the thousands of years before the idea of state sponsored welfare came in to existence, the responsibility for that person’s well-being would then fall to the rest of their community, a favor to be repaid in turn at a later date.
Unfortunately, this system has mostly faded away to be replaced with an incredibly faulty and unreliable network of charity and government programs, both of which come with their own set of requirements and hoops to jump through and both of which are falling short during this time of record high unemployment, accumulating debt, and illness. While indeed the government could shift more of our tax dollars towards social welfare programs to compensate for the current situation, that solution is becoming more and more of a distant hope as politicians continue to wield the well-being of the American people as a political weapon. As it stands, it seems only a return to a community based safety net will allow for a continuation of a stable standard of living for the American people.
These community based safety nets, also known as mutual aid networks, are not a completely unheard of concept in the United States. There is a long history of neighbors and community members banding together to provide financial support during illness and unemployment and, perhaps more importantly to provide emotional and social support. Classified as tax exempt “Fraternal Beneficiary Societies” by everyone’s favorite government entity, the IRS, mutual aid networks are composed of members that are “bonded by a common purpose or ties and engaged in substantial fraternal activities.”
These networks serve several different purposes and can be structured in a number of unique ways. Based on an understanding of mutual trust and accountability among members, mutual aid networks rely on social activities to create community bonds which then serve as a safeguard against abuse of the network. Traditionally, members will come together to pool money and resources on a regular basis, contributing to a lump sum which can then be loaned out at a zero percent interest rate to the members who are democratically chosen to be most in need at that point in time. Members will often also set aside a dedicated emergency fund to be used only should a sudden non-negotiable expense arise in their community.
The investment in mutual aid networks not only provides a safety net for a community but they also serve to ensure that the dollars of working people are used to benefit their community rather than benefiting large banks and the ever-looming Wall Street. At the same time, mutual aid networks remove the stigma of receiving charity and allow people to help each other and to be helped while maintaining their dignity and sense of self-worth, factors which are equally as important as financial security to a communities well-being.
Throughout our history it has been proven that mutual aid networks run by the working class, in the absence of a coherent system of government welfare provisions, provide more aid than any privately owned institution. In a time when people are becoming increasingly isolated, the need for unity is unparalleled and as we build unity around the communities needs, we also build up the strength and power of the people in those communities.