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Radical homemakers live well on less

Bike to Trader Joe's

In the third selection from Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes left the realm of theory and began to explore the similarities she'd noticed among the radical homemakers interviewed.  She explained that radical homemakers had redefined poverty and wealth, finding joy in free time, a strong marriage (if applicable), happy friendships, a cohesive family, and good food rather than striving to achieve the highest earning potential.

The chapter sought to dispel the myth that the following facets of middle class life are unachievable in a single- (or no-) wage-earner household:

  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Health care
  • Child care
  • Education
  • Retirement

Many of the radical homemakers' methods of achieving these goals on the cheap were inspiring --- focusing on good food, low stress, and community bonds to ensure your health, for example.  Other methods were obvious --- there's no need to pay for child care if at least one parent is at home full time. 

HomeschoolBut I was struck by how middle class all of the assumptions (and participants) were.  Many of the radical homemakers chose to homeschool and not jump through the expensive and time-consuming hoops required to get their kids into the right preschool so they could get into the right private school and then into the right college.  And yet, 27% of those parents had gone to grad or med school and 30% had a bachelor's degree (usually listed as being from a prestigious private school), while only 3% and 6% had chosen the traditionally lower class options of the military or a community college/technical school.  (Actually, I suspect those higher education percentages are underestimates --- anyone whose bio didn't explicitly mention their education went into my "potentially high school" category, but many of those people may simply have not self-identified based on their school.)  Those statistics tell me that the majority of the participants in the study were culturally middle class people who had access to options not available to the average American.

Middle class homesteadingI could pick apart other middle class assumptions (especially in the housing and income levels of the radical homemakers), but I wanted to throw this week's thought question out to my readers before you all roll your eyes and move on.  A couple of you commented on last week's post to say that when you're truly poor, you can't help working long hours to support your family.  With that in mind, I'm beginning to wonder whether Radical Homemakers really represents a template that we can all use to live well on less, or whether the book should be subtitled "how not to go quite as crazy as a middle class American."  We've discussed this topic in relation to Walden previously, but I thought it was worth rehashing with a more modern perspective.  What do you think?

If you're still reading along, we'll finish up the book by discussing chapters six and seven (and the profiles if you feel so inclined) next Wednesday.  Then we'll take a week off before diving into a book that I've been itching to savor for months --- The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips.  I'm not sure how this text will do as a book club selection since it's more factual and less philosophical than the Weekend Homesteaderother ones we've been discussing, but I have a feeling from the sections I've dipped into that Phillips' new book will change the way we all look at fruit trees and bushes, and I know it's one of the few books that will make the cut and stay on my permanent bookshelf.  So put in that interlibrary loan request now and we'll start discussing chapter 1 of The Holistic Orchard on October 3.

If you want to be the first one on your block to see Walden Effect readers' homesteading innovations in print, preorder your copy of The Weekend Homesteader today.

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Two "needs" surfaced, in a recent evaluation meeting I was at, to look at how my church did when we hosted homeless families last week (as part of a city-wide program with churches, to give at least some homeless families with children an address, the Day Center, so the parents could look for work). All of the church people were "middle-class" or culturally so, and the first issue they wanted to solve, to improve their own sleeping abilities, when 2 church people stayed overnight, was to have cots, not inflatable air mattresses, which were supplied. To solve the losing-air problem, which had been noted each day when the guests pointed it out, someone went to WalMart to check out the price of a portable cot ($60.) And they voted for this church to buy 2--for their own church members' use. I abstained in voting, since I was over-ruled. My reasoning was: it wouldn't be fair for only the church members to have "better" beds. I remember so well having to find bed boards for cots we used, and even for bunk bed foam mattresses (and even for a sofa). I had a middle class option then, to improve what beds we had, since I bought the bed boards. Some single parents actually don't have even a cot or an air mattress for their children to use, when they visit for the night, and might only have a kind of pallet--or (not middle-class?) have the child/ren share their bed.

I guess my point is, that cultural values aside, the buying solution (even of bed boards) is probably middle class?

Another issue that surfaced was that, altho the homeless families had been invited to church on Sunday, their eating the church's donuts seemed to be a problem for the church...until one of the kindest-hearted people offered to speak to the bakery to donate a box earmarked for the homeless. This, too, was a middle-class "solution", where the "old-time" family way would have been to make do and include the extra people by cutting back a little for each, so that basically, the pie would stay the same, but the pieces would be smaller. (We could have cut the donuts in half, to stretch them.)

I think "old-timey" ways of "stretching" have been overlooked a lot, nowadays, and that "middle-class" has become "standard" (as in Standard English vs Bionics, for ex.)A "radical homemaker" is able to invent an entirely different solution, that doesn't depend on buying the conventional item. But to do this, one has to have some other supplies, or some network of resources--ultimately, some stability.

Comment by adrianne Wed Sep 12 16:03:59 2012

Mom --- Thanks for that thoughtful reply! I guess when I was talking about middle class options, I was thinking more about the way that most of the radical homemakers in the book took advantage of their connections to family and friends who were living in the American mainstream and had cash to loan them, or they used their higher educations to get jobs where they could have one spouse at home if they pinched pennies, etc.

I know I've taken advantage of these same options --- we wouldn't have had nearly as easy of a time starting out on the farm if our family and friends hadn't been so supportive. I think you're right on track with your last sentence where you mention the need for stability before you can embark on any kind of radical homemaking. If you know you can move back in with your family and they can support you if worst comes to worst, you're more able to take chances.

I'm glad you're helping your church see the hypocrisy of some of their actions!

Comment by anna Wed Sep 12 16:15:59 2012

One thing that should be kept in mind is that many of the poor live in urban areas, where rent is high and good food is either expensive or unavailable. Where I grew up, in southern California, land is extremely expensive, and that is reflected in the rents. It's also a desert, and close to unfarmable. There is plenty of "good food" available, but it's shipped in from far away, only available in certain (upper-class) areas, and even the farmers' markets are expensive. In lower-class areas, residents are lucky if they have a grocery store; in many neighborhoods, the only place to get groceries is the neighborhood liquor store. Public transportation is also lacking; most of the working poor must keep a vehicle, simply to get to work. In such a situation, if you're a minimum wage-earner, you need to work two or three jobs just to pay for rent and food. My high school had a greater than 60% dropout rate. (Really not joking about that. My entering class had over 1200 students; I graduated with a class of 411.) A lot of the dropouts went into gangs, some of them were already in jail, there were plenty of teen pregnancies -- but a lot of the students dropped out as soon as they were old enough to legally work simply because they had to get a job to help support their families. It's all well and good to say "make do and mend", but these people are already making do and mending, they don't have any other choice. They're also working sixteen hour days just to put food on the table. The modern homesteading movement is a wonderful thing, IMO, but it's a middle-class movement that is directed at a middle-class audience, with little impact on the urban poor.

For the record, I now live in the Midwest, and from what I can tell, the rural poor aren't much better off. But I don't have nearly as much experience with rural poverty as I do with urban poverty, so I will refrain from drawing any conclusions about their situation.

Comment by Bess Wed Sep 12 17:09:28 2012

Bess --- Thanks for sharing your experience! There's a lot more rural poverty in our region, and that has the bonus that at least most folks can grow a garden if they want (and can find the time). But it's completely impossible to get around without a vehicle (the closest bus is maybe an hour's drive away), so everyone has to have a working car, which is a huge expense when you count in repairs, insurance, etc. (A few people still hitchhike.)

Out here, I think that if folks really wanted to, some of them could disconnect from mainstream culture and simply make do. Our helper Bradley lived for a solid year on basically nothing. He camped out in the woods, hunted, fished, and picked berries. He did have a bike and rode it several miles to work at a campground now and then, but mostly he was outside the cash economy for that time period. Of course, he presumably would have run out of bullets eventually, and I'm sure his current wife wouldn't be thrilled to live like that. :-)

Anyhow, not sure where I'm going with that --- it's getting late. Hopefully some other folks will chime in with their experiences!

Comment by anna Wed Sep 12 20:22:57 2012

I think that the info in your post reinforces the "back to the land" movement as largely a movement of the elite. This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, but it should probably be recognized. Just as with Walden, moving "down" a rung or two is easier when you start off higher. This doesn't even begin to account for the opening up of other options for income, the lack of sustained debt over time for education, the accumulation of large capital reserves gained by not having to pay for your first car, clothes, etc as a teenager/young adult.

In most periods that have experienced a sense of extreme social dislocation the same elite movement has taken place. Roman senators ran back to the pure food of the land as their hegemony collapsed. French kings built faux villages to provide for their tastes, and English gentry managed their gardens intensively as a tonic from industrialization.

Just because it's an elite movement doesn't mean that it's bad, but most of the people I know who are experimenting with self-sufficiency have nice comfy parent homes to go back to and a huge list of contacts to get a hold of if they want to get back into regular work if things fail. That always makes "demotion" a lot easier.

Comment by Cameron Moser Wed Sep 12 22:25:28 2012
There are different shades of poor. There are the helpless poor caused by a mental defect and then there are the poor caused by life circumstances. Either way, you make do or do without. My Mom and Dad worked very hard to lift themselves out of poverty; they felt lucky to have a high school education and they both had manufacturing jobs and a side business. Then Mom died after a lengthy illness and Dad was left for dead by a 15 year old with a sawed off shotgun and an itch to kill a human. Everything they had worked so hard to obtain was gone to pay significant medical bills. My Dad was placed on medical disability and we moved to the country where it is easier to be poor than in the suburbs. The girls learned to garden and gather and can and pickle and make our own clothes and the boys learned to hunt and fish and chop wood and plant. Yes the tasks were divided between male and female but I could do the same tasks as my brothers if needed. We didn't have a lot but we had enough to share. We slept two to a bed and shared bedrooms. When we had company, we gave up our beds and slept on pallets on the floor. My StepMom had hand signals for us to pay attention to her when guests were eating with us so we eased up on less than a serving of meat and ate all vegetables. We had many meatless meals as well. There was always enough. I never felt poor but looking back, I know we were. I still use the same basics for living today; get up and work hard physically, eat local, grow it yourself if you can, do for others and don't live above your means. Radical homemaking seems to be Just the basics for life.
Comment by Ro D Thu Sep 13 07:27:41 2012

Your comments hit home for me about this book being aimed at middle class folks - mostly because I did not even notice that fact! It's clear to me now, that most of the folks seemed pretty average to me because of my own similar background. She might not have realized it either, but I agree with you that her target audience is folks like her/me. I don't think that's a bad thing though - if she can manage to get some in the biggest consumer class to ratchet down their consumption and lifestyle, she's made a postive impact. I can only guess that the book could be annoying to people with much less to start with.

BTW, I'm very happy with the next pick - I was on the fence about getting the Holistic Orchard but I'm going to order it now :-) For those that want to buy it or can't get it from the library, it's on sale thru Friday at Chelsea Green.

Comment by De Thu Sep 13 08:06:19 2012

Cameron --- Interesting historical perspective. I agree with you that the movement doesn't lose all of its quality by being for the elite, but it seems like there should be a way to make it more appealing to folks who start with less.

Ro D --- Thanks for sharing your experiences! I'm so sorry to hear your family had such a tough time. If you drop back by, I'm curious --- how did your parents manage to move to the country with so much stacked against them? I hear from many people that that's what holds them back from homesteading if they're not already well-to-do --- the price of land. Did you rent? Live on family land?

De --- Your first sentence is very good and honest! You're right that hitting the most consumptive class is a great place to start, and as Cameron said, just because she's not speaking to poorer folks doesn't make her message less valuable to her intended audience. But I would have really liked for her to interview some folks like Ro D --- I think they have a story to tell too!

I'm thrilled you're on board for The Holistic Orchard! Thanks for telling folks about the sale.

Comment by anna Thu Sep 13 08:27:40 2012
I do not think that all of the decisions were inherently middle class. Most of the families used the connections available to them, it is just that often the middle class has more options available to them. One of the options of course is having the liberty to choose how they want to pursue their life instead of being stuck with circumstances that are very, very limiting. My biggest fear would be from people who would look at the accomplishments of those in the book and try to extrapolate if those could do it, everyone should be able to. Not everybody has the same resources available to them. To note, I did not see that in this book, but it seems to be a fairly common theme of everybody needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Comment by Tisha Thu Sep 13 11:46:08 2012

I have been reading the blog for some time now, and even though I did not read the book, I have followed the "Book Club" posts and read the recent comments. I can only comment on what my family and I are currently doing and are not quite sure if we would be considered "Radical Homesteaders". My husband, daughter and I live in the Bronx, voted the poorest county of 2012. Granted there are poorer families living in the same urban wasteland like ourselves, but that is no excuse to feel like "homesteading is for the elite". Yes, good food is hard to find, and yes the green markets are expensive, so to still eat the best we can, we eat less meat, buy what is in season, cook meals at home, cancel cable television to save on expenses, use the library extensively for entertainment, re-use clothing, etc - Just live frugally! and most important of all limit our child bearing to One!

....Everyone can change their circumstances (if they have the mental and physical abilities to function as a working adult in society; it is not the responsibilities of young adults to become parents and caregiver of younger siblings (I being the eldest, had to carry this burden myself for years). Homesteading was the original way of life, so I don't see it as a "getting back to the land" movement - we really never left, it's just that our turn of the Century ancestors became blinded as a society with all the glitz and infomercial of shiny new things, high rise buildings, convenient stores, and dry cleaning and in the process aspire to live in tall apartment buildings, with no more field to sow. All we have to do is plant one seed of hope in a young person's life, and it will find fertile ground, no matter where they live and their circumstances.

Comment by Karen of Bronx, NY Fri Sep 14 22:08:53 2012
Karen --- I really appreciated hearing your perspective! If you do ever pick up Radical Homemakers, I'd be curious to hear whether it speaks to you as solidly as it does to our more affluent readers.
Comment by anna Sat Sep 15 09:12:21 2012

What you're saying here is exactly what I was thinking the whole time I read the book: "Not everyone has those resources!" Especially help from family ... we are lucky enough to have family that likes to pitch in for various needs of ours, but not everyone does. The author mentions that some homemakers felt they were "cheating" by relying on others, and her conclusion was "if the help is there, why not?" And that's fine, but I think the feeling of "cheating" comes from the feeling that not everyone has that kind of support, and how can we tell people "if we can do this, you can too" if we're using resources not everyone has? And we can't advocate that everyone do this if we rely on the non-radical-homemakers in our life to pitch in.

If you think of it as a "middle class" solution, it does make more sense, but even so, not even everyone in the middle class can do this. Of course I'm speaking in the middle of a tight economy, where most everyone I know is economizing in some way or other that they're not used to, just to pay the bills. I found myself wanting more discussion of how it's economically feasible -- not how this or that person did it, but more universally speaking. What about debt, skyrocketing food and gas prices, underemployment? I think the book was begun while things were still going well, so I can't really blame them for not putting much emphasis on the struggle that people are going through.

The health insurance issue was a big one. There's no real solution given, except "eat well and trust you won't get sick." Well, what if you do get sick though? If you die of appendicitis because you couldn't afford a hospital stay, do you just feel grateful you had a nice life while it lasted? Or do you go in anyway and be saddled with debt from those bills for the rest of your life? These are decisions a lot of us do have to make ... I was really hoping for some actual help with that one. Health insurance is a huge expense for a lot of families. Every time we've gotten new jobs, we're all excited because we have so much money ... and the next thing we know, all that extra money is GONE because even on an employer's insurance, our contribution is still huge. I'm often tempted to try going without, because I know there ARE resources -- like cash-only clinics, out-of-hospital births (our midwife wasn't covered by insurance anyway) -- but I'm unsure because I know that a health crisis can happen to anyone, at any time.

Of course the "going without" option is disappearing now anyway, and prices are expected to double. Will anyone be able to make the jump to radical homemaker under the new healthcare law?

Comment by Sheila Sat Sep 15 09:51:35 2012

Sheila --- I find catastrophic health insurance relatively cheap (although the price has been rising.) On the other hand, it probably wouldn't feel as affordable if we had to pay for multiple people --- Mark's in the Veteran's Affairs system, so gets it free, and we clearly don't have dependents.

But I think it's not as crazy as it sounds to couple catastrophic health insurance with good food and trust you won't get sick. Mark and I have barely been part of the medical system since we moved to the farm and worked on de-stressing and improving our diets. (Of course, we're youngish and hadn't been part of the system much before then either. :-) )

Comment by anna Sun Sep 16 14:02:08 2012

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime