Neighbors Banding Together in Tough Times

We’re rooting for President Barack Obama and Congress to fix the economy, hoping they’ll find a way to compensate for the 7.4 million jobs that have disappeared since 2007 and assist the 1.7 million people who have lost their homes. But we also need to take responsibility for our debt, build real security, and press for accountability.

Some people have realized this and are coming together on a local level, organizing to take care of one another in this new economy. They’re part of a quintessentially American self-help movement that has emerged over the last year called “common security clubs.” These clubs are part study group, part mutual aid and part social action. They’re a living example of the independent voluntary associations that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville admired about Americans in the 19th century.

In church basements, community centers, and union halls, people are coming together to learn what caused the economic meltdown, help one another, and identify actions they can take together to press for a healthy economy.

Participants have been able to reduce anxiety about our finances — and see the abundance that still exists in our communities. Unfortunately, most of us are sorely out of practice when it comes to mutual aid, giving and receiving help from our neighbors. But what we’ve discovered by coming together is that we can’t face the changing economy in isolation.

At this time last year, millions of people were asking, “How did this economic meltdown happen?” By watching videos, reading articles and engaging in face-to-face discussions, common security club members have been exploring the roots of the economic crisis. Members have also reflected on the deeper challenges facing our economy, such as wealth inequality, stagnant wages, and dizzying amounts of personal and public debt.

Common security clubs have helped members network about jobs, strategize personal budgets and find ways to be more frugal. Members have made pacts to get out of debt. Several clubs have done “weatherization barn-raisings,” helping one another insulate their New England homes for the winter in order to save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs. Some have bartered for services among themselves, swapping yard work for childcare, computer skills for language lessons.

These clubs are a place where participants face the facts and prepare for the future. Participants realize we can’t go back to some glory economy of the past based on endless borrowing, unchallenged greed and cheap oil and energy. Everything is changing, regardless of what Wall Street and the cable networks are telling us.

That said, club members have also recognized the limits of self-help: Some of the problems they’ve identified demand more formal social action. They’ve been motivated to engage in the democratic process to fix the economy in a way that helps them and lifts everyone up. Clubs have pressed state governments to ensure that stimulus funds reach their neighborhoods; they have lobbied Congress to pass legislation to stop foreclosures, protect consumers, and rein in the unregulated financial operators on Wall Street.

The big banks have gotten their trillions in aid from the Bush and Obama administrations. Wall Street is happy: Its definition of a recovery is booming stock prices and multi-million dollar CEO paychecks. But that has little meaning for the majority of working people. We need to come together to ensure that the rest of us find recovery.

While we’re waiting for the big fix, maybe these clubs are the right medicine.

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also a member of a common security club in Boston and has helped coordinate a network of clubs. To learn more about Common Security Clubs, visit www.commonsecurityclub.org.