The creation of Vashon Household thirty years ago reflected our general desire to maintain diversity in our community. We were not diverse in ethnicity or race, but we were very diverse in terms of income. While we wished to be more diverse in the former two categories, our immediate attention was securing a place for lower income people, in particular our teachers, caregivers, farmers, artists, and store and restaurant employees. We also wanted the island to be affordable for young people, especially our own children.
Thirty years later, as I have said before, the situation is worse despite our efforts. Property values reflect a generally higher income population while the incomes of wage earners have lagged far behind. Despite our intentions over thirty years, we haven’t been able to muster the community will to solve this problem. Admittedly, it is not an easy problem to solve as it involves dynamics that reverberate throughout our society and stymie our local efforts. I’m talking about more people and less housing, and intentions by government, lending institutions, and the building trades to improve the quality and safety of new construction and to protect our local environment. In particular, we are trying to protect our water supply and aquifer recharge areas as well as our forests, wetlands, and other natural areas. We have not given the same effort to providing safe and secure housing to all our community members.
At this time when we are at last confronting our unconscious racial biases, I think we need to start looking at our income biases as well. The pandemic has given us a new appreciation for “essential workers.” Our largely unnoticed and unexamined perception of lower income people as somehow less worthy or desirable is very old. People that provide services for others have always been lower in the hierarchy. Maybe now we are aware that they are just as important, if not more so, than our portfolio, and, in fact our portfolios depend on them.
Over time, some services like legal or medical services have become well remunerated and these workers have gained access to the higher echelons by way of wealth accumulation. Wealth has supplanted bloodlines as the determinant of social class.
How do we determine that one person’s contribution to society merits more respect and remuneration than another’s? Certainly, the work of some has much larger financial or direct health implications, and the work of some serves the needs or desires of very large numbers of people. Some high-income people may have vast working or academic experience while some others may just have been at the right place at the right time with maybe just the ability to make people laugh. Some wealthy people are just good at and enjoy the game of making money. I would postulate that everybody has a unique gift to offer but only a few get the exposure that leads to wealth. Bill Gates, a college dropout, is only exceptional because he utilized his gift at the right time and place. Great wealth may require great effort but that alone will not be enough. You also have to be fortunate.
A person’s decision to perform one of the “humbler” vocations should not have bearing on their merit. Einstein was a middling bureaucrat as was Kafka, and they pursued far more ambitious careers outside the job. As well, choosing to pursue a manual profession does not indicate a lack of intellect. Aristocratic pretensions of old still inform us that working with your hands for a living is a lower-class activity that merits only lower-class pay. Some people are so far in the forefront that society has no place for them. Many want to be free to explore their passion uninhibited by the exigencies of supply and demand. Some just aren’t interested in wealth. That being said, it doesn’t mean they want to live in constant fear of not getting their needs met, and they might even like to have a little extra to enjoy life. People who fulfill their responsibilities to the community should be able to expect a safe and secure existence.
Now let’s look at the people who truly are dysfunctional and are more likely homeless. They may have health problems, have had dysfunctional upbringing, or some other devastating personal experience. Should these people be shunned and not cared for? Among the homeless there may even be a few who have chosen that life to transcend worldly existence. These are Kerouac’s dharma bums (I know at least one). In India’s Buddhist culture, it is not unknown for a rich man to give away his wealth to pursue enlightenment in a loincloth with a begging bowl at the end of their life. They may be remote exceptions here. In any case, we should provide help and not judgement.
It will require some adjustment, expense, and effort on all our parts to provide a reliable stock of affordable housing and the care that many need. Empathy, tolerance, respect, and love are called for. “There but for fortune go you or I.”