How do we plan to take care of each other? This is the burning question that I’ve been trying to get people together to discuss these past few years. In the face of capitalism-induced precarity, Community Cash proposes at least one possible answer. Community Cash, a mutual aid project launched last year in San Francisco, is a web platform where subscribers can sign up to donate a mere dollar a day to a general fund. The funds are then redistributed monthly to specific people currently in need within their community. While the project’s simple proposal appears at first to be quite modest, the implications are profound. At a time when many of us are greatly feeling the strain of austerity measures and budget cuts, the project helps demonstrate that the real problem is not so much scarcity of resources as their distribution. The results are both literal and prefigurative: less than a year after its inception, the project currently provides material resources right now to people suffering health and housing crises under capitalism-induced precarity. Yet, the project also offers a speculative model for autonomously organized community care in the future. For the upcoming issue of SCAM (due out in June) I spoke to one of the project’s founders, Anandi Worden, about the project and how it gestures towards the possibility of a universal basic income provided for us not by the government but by one another.
SCAM: What is Community Cash and how does it work?
ANANDI WONDER:Community Cash is a mutual aid project that aims to provides a stable amount of income to people in our community who are in precarious situations. Donors contribute only a dollar a day into the fund. The idea is that the contribution amount is low enough so that even poor folks can contribute without it being a strain. With two hundred people subscribed at $30 a month we can provide an income of $1000 a month to six people.The goal is to intervene to provide care and help before medical or other emergency situations become a crisis and to help prevent these situations by providing enough stability to prevent these crisis from happening at all. Community Cash aims to move care away from emergency fundraisers that put strain on community members' finances and to make the lives of our sick and otherwise vulnerable friends better by giving them space to do more than simply struggle to survive.
SCAM: What was your inspiration for starting this? What is the philosophy behind it?
AW:My inspiration for this project was 100% desperation. Over the last few years I've watched the worst case scenario play out over and over. People I know and love have died, have received fatal diagnoses as a result of inadequate health care, have lost their homes and been unable to find new places to settle. I’ve felt powerless in the face of seeing so many people around me suffering in precarious situations and I fear what is going to happen to the people I love. I was talking to a friend about a number of people -- good friends of many years, all active and important community members -- who we could see clearly were the next high risk people. We talked about the need to do something to take care of them—just our basic desire to be able to take care of our own and to offer some kind of support to prevent the worst crisis.
But how? I don't have enough money to fix anyone's problems singlehandedly. I mean, I can contribute $20 to a gofundme when things get really bad, sure. But my idea is to spread that out and make the small amounts of money go further. Instead of giving someone $30 -- which is useful for like a day -- I give $30 to the project. If a whole community of people donates a small amount, it makes this huge difference.
SCAM: How do you decide who will get the funds? Has that worked so far?
AW:When this began, I was worried about specific friends of mine who needed to stay housed and needed medical care, so there wasn't a process of choosing people so much as I made the project around them. That said, as soon as I started wondering if this could really happen I realized it was really important for it not to be another way to just move money around within white communities. So I made it a priority to add some more POC people in need of help from my immediate community to make sure there was a balance that felt okay. The model is based on the traditional mutual aid lodge models of African American and Caribbean communities so I definitely don't want to just steal that model and use it to only give money to white people. Ideally this project is also a way for white folks to give support in an easy way to black and other POC folks.
The initial six people were simply my friends and close friends of friends who had the most immediate need. But ideally I would love to expand the project to serve more people. The priority will always be to select people who are women or queers. It's going to be a lot of people who are dealing with chronic health problems, because this is what's happening to these overworked, overstressed, undersupported populations. These are the folks who are pushing our communities and driving so much of the emotional and logistical labor of the things we all love and benefit from but who aren't being taken care of in return, and I want to change that.
SCAM: How do you handle issues of transparency with the money so that donors feel certain it is going where it is supposed to go? My sense is that part of the point is anonymity for the beneficiaries to remove the strain or stigma of having to publicly ask for help and sell themselves for it. But then the donors have to take your word for it that the money is going to the right place...
AW:If we have a weak link this is it, because I haven't figured out a way that doesn't involve some trust. I post screenshots showing the Paypal balance and the money going out with the names of recipients blacked out. But, of course nothing online is certain. Anything could befake, right? But, at heart this project is a way of modeling the world we want to live in – a kind of “fake it ‘til you make it.” All I can do is ask that we include this trust in that vision of a future world. That said, my name is on it and you can find me easily. This community is all I have and it has literally saved my life in the past by coming out for me and helping me out when I needed it. I'd be a fool to jeopardize all that and I won’t.
SCAM: Sure, it can be hard to trust online anything right now. But I also think the anonymity of who gets the money is actually one of the best features of this. It’s so heartbreaking to see people who are really hurting always have to figure out how to sell themselves in gofundme campaigns, too, just to survive. Or manage these campaigns while they are also dealing with their crisis health situation. I love how this gently redistributes the effort of getting the money for people in need and shields those in a financial emergency from having to be so public and vulnerable about it online.
AW:Yeah, I think it's so important to do it this way. Part of the goal is to actually allow people the privacy and dignity of not having subscribers side-eye what they spend their money on. To never, ever, have anyone be like, "Oh, are you eating out?You know, I paid for that soup." This way, the recipients can just live normal lives. But no one's going on fancy vacations here. People are actually just surviving.
SCAM: How has it been working since you launched? How many folks signed up to donate and how many are getting helped?
AW:Around sixty-five people are currently signed up and we currently have five people getting over $400 each a month. We've distributed over $14,000 since starting it with just the subscriptions! The recipients are not achieving independence as a result of it yet but it has helped them stabilize even at the lower than target amount, allowing them to do things like finally get glasses, take time to recover from medical procedures, or just pay rent. Unfortunately, I hit some delays in launching it and ended up getting it out there less than a week before going in for my own surgery. The surgery then had complications which completely took me out of commission for nearly six months, so I didn't get to launch it and get traction quite the way I wanted to. Now that I’m doing better, my plan for the next few months is to get the number of donors up to our target of two hundred donors total ($1000 a month for the recipients). At any number over that we can start adding more people to be helped.
SCAM: Do you have advice for others who might be looking to start up something based on your model?
AW:Yes! One of my big goals for this project is to encourage people to copy it. I'd like to see dozens of these spring up. We don’t need to operate from a position of scarcity. There are more than two hundred people out there who can contribute to something like this; there are likely thousands. I intend to add a “How To Start Your Own” page to the website, but honestly, it's not complicated. I sure don't have any special skills. My main advice would be to be very thoughtful about where the money was coming from and going to and make sure it's going in the right direction. By which I mean, pick the recipients with care and thought towards intersectionality.
SCAM: I am curious about how you deal with the issues of moving money around and taxes if the transactions are all above ground and tracked via computer and you are not a tax exempt charity. It would seem that the tax laws are in many ways set up against this kind of community mutual aid.
AW:Yeah, it's not ideal. Because this is the first year we didn't pull in enough money to be taxed but next year it's just going to have to come out of the money that goes to the recipients. So that sucks. But on balance I feel it's worth it.
SCAM: Based on our shared experience of working together and apart on various mutual aid projects for years, it occurs to me that there is a kind of evolution in your political ideals happening here. You and I have traditionally been involved in projects like Food Not Bombs and similar models of the Digger ideal of Free that are predicated in some way on the idea that money itself is unnecessary, an abstraction, and that we can simply redistribute food and necessary items in other ways to demonstrate that. It’s interesting to me to see you move into creating a model based on redistributing literal money.
AW:I got sick. I mean, that's the answer, that's it. Those models are beautiful and inspiring but unfortunately it turns out they're almost always inherently ableist and inaccessible to sick people. Nothing is actually free -- it's just a question of whether you pay for it with money or with energy and time. When you're poor you pay with your time: the time spent waiting in lines for the cheap or free thing or cooking instead of eating out, let alone dumpstering instead of going to the store. But when you don't have the ability to do those things, you need money to survive -- unless you have someone taking care of you and dumpstering that food for you and cooking it for you. And even in that case, that sucks. It means you're dependent on someone else for everything. Sick people need money to live with dignity.
Also, ten years ago, I might not have paid attention to this kind of project because it wasn't helping everyone at once, but my perspective on that has changed a lot, too. I've come to see the value of helping people one at a time too, and the ways that can ripple out. I have been going through a weird time personally with regard to politics and organizing for a while now. I had to make a choice to take care of myself and be healthy and to completely step away from larger scale organizing, but I have a lot of guilt about that. What's ended up feeling okay for me is to focus on very small scale things that I feel like I can do for individual people. We need both obviously, and I'm so glad people are on the front lines and getting stuff done in huge ways, but I think this has value too, even if it never does more than help these few people. But the thing is, I think this project CAN be a big thing. It's a model of a universal income project. If we can get this starter version with these six people going and make it stable, people can replicate it and it can spread out as an example of how we can take care of each other without reliance on the government. And we have never needed to get that sorted out more than we do right now. It's all very well to be anti-government but sick people and disabled people are currently 100% reliant on the state to survive, because our communities are not filling that gap. I think that if this project grows it can spit in the face of scarcity mentality, it can show that we, collectively, have enough, but it's just a matter of distributing it efficiently.
SCAM:Is it helpful for anyone reading this in SCAM to start giving to your fund? Only if they identify as within your community? Or is it better if they start their own thing? etc. People reading this might just want to go directly to the link after and sign up. Is that good for you?
AW:YES!!!!! My single goal for all this is for everyone who reads thisto sign up! Community Cash is priced with the intention that even people with less privilege can afford to give without overtaxing their budget or compromising taking care of themselves. But hopefully people who aren't poor will also give to the project and take some of the burden off the communities who are struggling. I would love to see people signing up their middle class parents, their coworkers, and those people who can afford this without a second thought. Because what happens is that support often falls to the people closest to whoever is effected -- and the people closest to poor people are, let's be honest, usually other poor people. So people who can barely pay their own bills are often scrambling to lend rent to their friends who are facing eviction because they're too sick to work, or bringing over groceries they can't even really afford. This is a way to spread that care more evenly.