Cultural Barrier #7: High financial cost of participation in gatherings
Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?
Like most of the barriers we’ve been exploring, this one’s not only a barrier to multiage inclusion. It’s really about income-based exclusion, and that’s an element that affects a variety of groups disproportionately—but young people are among these groups, being significantly more likely to struggle financially.
Within a monthly meeting, finances usually aren’t a direct barrier to participation. There are a few exceptions, such as potlucks and community-building activities that involve going out to restaurants together, but usually, the barrier comes into play when Friends start to travel outside of their own monthly meetings—to regional/quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, conference centers, Friends General Conference gatherings, Friends United Meeting events, Friends World Committee for Consultation meetings, and so forth. That’s the point when finances really become a significant barrier.
Oftentimes, we use the phrase “financial aid is available” as if this were some sort of magical cure-all. It’s not. Those of us who have asked for financial aid know this to be the case. But for the sake of those who might not have had this experience, here’s what it’s like (at least for me):
I open up the registration form for a large Quaker gathering. I go through the whole registration process. I choose the cheapest housing option. I mark the box that says “reduced registration rate for Young Adult Friends” (though I’ll only be able to get away with that for another year). And then I get to the final page—payment information. And I owe hundreds of dollars.
Okay. There are three boxes. The first one says “amount you are contributing.” I’m immediately stuck. If I pay out of my savings, I can cover it all. But I do that a lot. My savings are whittling down. So how much do I pay? Maybe half? Is that fair? I’ve cut a lot of costs from my personal life in the last few years—given up my apartment and moved in with roommates, purchased fewer luxuries, changed the way I shop for groceries. I’ve done all this specifically so that I can afford to participate more fully in my Quaker community. But then, last month I paid $40 for a rush ticket to a Broadway show. If I can afford that, doesn’t that mean I shouldn’t be asking for financial assistance? Aren’t there people who need the money a lot more than I do?
I put down a number that’s about 60% of the total.
The next box says, “amount you are asking for from your monthly meeting.” I hate this blank. My monthly meeting does have some funds available, but not a lot, and only for specific types of gatherings. And a few years ago, one financial aid form from my meeting said, “priority given to families with children.” I don’t have children. But I trust my meeting’s discernment, so—am I not a priority? Also, if I ask for help from my meeting, the money I use is money somebody else can’t use. And I know those somebody elses. They may genuinely need more help than I do. And asking for help from my meeting is kind of hard. I’ve done it before. It takes weeks before a decision comes, and the discernment is done by two committees, so as many as eight people know exactly how much money everybody’s asking for. It might be a moral failing on my part, but I find that embarrassing. (And incidentally, when I tell people that, they accuse me of pride. Which may be the case, but it’s not a helpful response.)
I put down $0.
The last box says, “amount you are asking for from the Equalization Fund.” The first time I did this, I didn’t know what that meant and therefore didn’t ask for anything. Now I know that it’s a fund that some Friends pay extra money to so that others can pay less. If there’s not enough money to go around, my request will probably still be granted, but reduced. That feels okay to me.
I put down the remaining balance.
A week later, I’m in the organization’s office for unrelated reasons when somebody says to me, “We need to talk about your registration. You can’t request money from the Equalization Fund unless you also ask for money from your meeting. And we can’t grant you as much as you put down.”
Immediately, there are tears in my eyes. Figuring out how to fill out all those blanks was hard in the first place. Now I’m being told, in no uncertain terms, and in a moment when I was not prepared to have this conversation, that I screwed it up. It’s humiliating. I’m expected to say, “Oh, I’ll ask for money from my meeting, then.” But I won’t, for the reasons I already said.
So I blurt, “Never mind. I’ll pay for it myself.”
The person pushes. Why not ask? The meeting has funds. No problem.
“No. Never mind. I’ll pay out of savings. Forget it.”
It’s hard to do this once. But I go through processes like this again and again and again and again. For international organizations. For my local conference center. For travel when I facilitate things for other meetings. Every time, the blanks are different, but every time, I stare at them hopelessly—how much money do I ask for here? What’s enough for me to sacrifice?
And I have it so much easier than most people my age. For one thing, I do have savings—that alone is an incredible privilege. For another, I don’t have kids. How much harder would all this be if I were trying to balance the amount of money I put in the blank with the odds that one of my kids will get sick over the weekend, and I’ll have to pay for a trip to urgent care?
The majority of Friends my age don’t even try. If they can’t afford it out of pocket, they just don’t go. Which means that the major institutional decisions, plus our broader institutional culture, continue to be controlled by the Quakers who happen to have money. Good people, absolutely—but not representative of the whole.
Culture Flip #7: Shifting to pay-as-led pricing; changing locations and structures of gatherings so the actual cost is lower
What does this look like in the Religious Society of Friends?
If we were fully living our testimonies, cost to participate would never be an issue. And by never, I mean never. Ever.
New England Yearly Meeting took an enormous step in the right direction when they shifted their annual sessions to pay-as-led. In their registration process, they list the actual full cost of sessions per person, the traditional rate charged (which doesn’t cover staff time and overhead), and the traditional reduced rate (what Friends applying for financial assistance would have paid before the change to pay-as-led). Then there’s a blank: how much are you led to pay? And that’s the end of the story. One blank, no follow-up, no need to prove that you really need help, no agonizing over whether you’re going to get the financial assistance or have to stay home.
Of course, this still doesn’t account for factors like the amount of work missed (independent contactors, like me, and Friends who don’t get vacation pay lose a full week’s income when we go to something like annual sessions, and that’s the difference between making enough to pay the rent that month – or not).
We live in a time when remote access by Internet is possible for almost everybody. Not quite everybody—there are certainly those who don’t have Internet in their homes—but even then, there’s the possibility of a group of Friends gathering at their local meetinghouse and participating in a conference or retreat remotely. I have some questions about how web-based connection would work in terms of depth of worship and full participation. But I don’t think my doubts are worth rejecting the possibility out of hand. Are we experimenting with this as fully as we might?
It’s also time to focus on models where one facilitator travels to a group of Friends, rather than a group of Friends traveling from many places to a retreat center to meet with the one facilitator. Again, especially for the younger age groups, you’re talking about not only the cost of registration but the cost of travel, the cost of work lost, and often the cost of childcare.
I love getting together with big groups of Friends in beautiful places, turning off all the technology and experiencing a peaceful respite. I wonder if significant change would eventually mean giving up some of the things I really like. But ultimately, I have to ask myself the question—what’s more important? My personal enjoyment of the way things are, or full inclusion in the Religious Society of Friends?
I find that when I frame it that way, I only have one answer.