Swimming in the Income Pool

…I realized that many of us are de facto income-sharing already. The difference is that we often think of it as expense sharing. If you’ve ever lived in a group house, been part of a meal plan, or co-owned a vehicle, you’ve essentially been income-sharing. But because the focus was on what you paid for, and not on what you earned, it didn’t feel that way. Pooling resources and sharing expenses feels safe; giving up control over our income is scary

Is An Income-Sharing Community Right for You?

In one way or another for nearly all of my life I have been pooling income with someone. As a child my parents pooled their income to bring me and my sister up – and continued to do so after I left home – and like many families have on various occasions continued to financially support the wider family to this day. I’ve also done my share of expense sharing, both informally and more formally. In the Hampstead squat we all used to put an equal amount each in a kitty to cover the household expenses and bills. We even once all went on a 10 day macrobiotic brown rice diet and used the money we saved on food to pay a large telephone bill that had been run up by a housemate who had just left. (Yes we had a landline telephone in a squat.) Today I pool income with my partner and for the best part of 20 years or so at People In Common I pooled income with other members. The big difference being that there were no ‘blood ties’ to motivate sharing of income – income pooling was ideological. Or it was and it wasn’t.

For many years pooling income was seen as a sort of ideological litmus test for joining PIC – it sifted out the economically compatible wheat from the chaff before they even applied to join. So how did it work? In the very beginning the group didn’t income pool – how long this went on for I don’t know – I was told that it started by sharing the cost of postage stamps , but that doesn’t seem to quite add up. By the time I joined in 1978 the group had been pooling their income for at least three years and the system seemed to work reasonably well. Everyone put in whatever income they had, be it from a job or benefits, all expenses were paid for collectively and we each got a small amount of ‘pocket money’ to spend on personal things. Visitors were asked for a contribution that just covered their food costs. Members were also asked to freeze any savings they had while they were living there.

After a while income pooling can seriously mess with you head – on balance I think mostly in positive ways. It blurs the differences in income earning power between the sexes, between those with qualifications and those without, between the young and the old, between what is considered to be ‘work’ and what is seen as domestic chores. It challenges some fairly deep cultural and psychological assumptions that we carry round in our heads about money. I recall Woody struggling to come terms with the idea of not being a ‘breadwinner’ at the point where he was taking more out of the pool than he was putting in.

My own relationship with money was undermined by years in an income pool, Of actual money having little or no relation to the work I was doing. I have ‘earned’ 50p an hour for serious hard labour on a building site and been paid well for work I consider to have been easy. Neither of which made any difference to my standard of living or the amount of money that I had in my pocket at the time – it all went into the pool and was used for collective projects or distributed on an agreed equal basis. For most of twenty years I didn’t have a personal bank account as I didn’t really need one. Much to the consternation of the bank clerk when I did finally try to open an account as he couldn’t conceive of how you could exist for that long without one. Well – the group paid all my bills and living expenses and gave me cash for going out or buying clothes and going on the odd holiday – if I needed a cheque to pay for something I could get one from the group account. It wasn’t quite “each according to their abilities and each according to their needs” But it was pretty close. Tempered by the reality that we had very little income between us and we cut our needs accordingly.

Pooling our income seemed to work the best, most smoothly, when we ran the building co-op and most of us were working together and sharing domestic work fairly equally. There was also the collective focus of The Mill – which we tended to spend any surplus income on. There were the odd glitches in income pooling. I remember when we had different eating groups, one group wanted to eat more frugally and keep the money saved to spend among themselves on their own personal things – extra beer money was mentioned. There was also the Guardian Readers Club. A visitor called Jim bought the paper everyday and would ‘share’ it with you for a small contribution (10p a double page spread if I remember correctly) If you didn’t participate in the ‘club’ then you weren’t supposed to read the paper. Leading to numerous occasions of members reading week old Guardians on their knees on the floor after the paper had been put down after the floors had been mopped.

Having collective control over our income ,expenditure and housing costs enabled us to be creative with our finances. As people living on, or close, to the poverty line we were able to maximise our access to benefits. (Note: If you are planning to income pool don’t try and explain it to the Department for Work and Pensions – they won’t understand and they may well try to stop your benefits.) At one point in an effort to break out of the poverty trap that benefits can lock you into we devised what we called an Income Trampoline. Where because I didn’t qualify for any benefits I was paid what seemed like a huge amount while everyone else remained on equal(low) pay thus maximising our benefits as a group while minimising our tax bill – all modeled on spreadsheets on our brand spanking new Amstrad word processor.

In the mid 1990’s the income pool unraveled and we stopped income pooling. It was a momentous event at the time and felt like some sort of betrayal of all we had stood for over two decades. One way of looking at why it happened is that we had too much money. We had reached the point where we had a surplus over and above what was needed to meet our basic needs and we failed to find a way to agree how to spend it. We also no longer had a big communal project, Doing up the Mill, that we all were focused on. So it boiled down to a bit of an economic tug o’ war between individual personal needs and wants. Which got so bogged down in a seemingly endless consensus process that a few of us decided to break the deadlock by declaring unilateral financial independence.

Talking to some founder members afterwards who had been around when income pooling had been first started I discovered that it had been largely a practical measure to cope with extreme poverty within the group. Some people had been worried that it would handicap the group by making it too big a deal to join, condemning the group to a limited membership. But they couldn’t at the time see any other way of the group surviving. Only later did it evolve into an integral part of the groups ideology.

At a Welfare State reunion in Burnley I met the local woman who had been the cleaner for the company when it was based on the edge of the local tip and she said she couldn’t believe that back in those early days she was being paid the same as the company’s artistic director. This led to a conversation about economic equality and I think it was John Fox said that it all boiled down to poverty. “If you have little or no money to speak of – then pay everyone the same. When you’re getting a decent amount of money coming in then you can pay people different rates.” Looking back I can see that that in a slightly different way that’s why the PIC income pool worked for so long and why it unraveled in the end.

While I was writing this post news came through of the sudden death of anarchist anthropologist, writer, teacher and activist David Graeber. I came across his writing about the Occupy Movement in the late 2000s and have been particularly influenced in my thinking about the nature of work and money through his books on Bullshit Jobs and Debt;the first 5000 years. Much of what he writes about the nature of work and the values ascribed to money in western culture resonated strongly for me with the sort of things that underpinned what we doing by income pooling – though I doubt we could have ever articulated them in the same way.

So was income pooling a purely pragmatic way of collectively alleviating poverty, a creative way of funding political activity and the renovation of a grade11 historic building, or an ideological attempt to change our relationship with money? Or maybe all three? At the end of his book exploring the history of debt David Graeber posed the following question – one that has a ring of our experiment in income pooling to it.

….If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.

David Graeber Debt:the first 5000 years

Previous post: Doing Up The Mill (part 6) – Moving In. Next Post: Give the Anarchist a Dictionary

Share Button