Being Low(er) Income In Effective Altruism

There have been a series of discussions on EA forums about representation of minorities and marginalized groups. I will be writing several posts about this topic.

One proposed way to increase donations and charitable giving is to destigmatize discussions of money and giving. We do this because when we discuss our behavior with others it creates a standard of conduct within our communities. When we review and examine our charitable donations it reminds our friends and family the importance of giving and creates a norm around increasing donations as well as support and praise for giving. The goal being to create a culture of positive reinforcement and praise. So we are working on building a culture that is OK talking about money because we believe that this has the potential to do a lot of good, even though it may be uncomfortable at first.

But these discussions can be super uncomfortable if you know you can't donate at that same level. So it becomes easy to see why going to a meet-up or discussion where people are talking about how to donate large sums of money is something people of lower income would avoid.

A few months ago at an EA meetup, the question was asked if everyone in the group was a tech worker. At the time I didn't volunteer being the only non-techy in the room. One because I was interested in other people's response, but mainly because I was overcome with my latent desire not to draw attention to myself. I also had a suspicion that had I thrown my hand up I would have gotten questions about what I do (which I don't think is very interesting), or worse *eep* why I'm not earning to give.

The several people in the room that know I don't work as a programer, or anywhere around the tech industry, also didn't volunteer that I wasn't 'one of them.' This experience was interesting, not just because of my amusement at my own shyness, but because it exemplifies something that I've heard others mention about being around a lot of effective altruists. The group has a tendency to be be mostly homogenous in nature, which can be ostracizing for those that don't necessarily fit.

Most of the male, techy, analytical types that inhabit the EA space have very high earning potential. More than that, they start out with at pretty good pay rate. The Seattle group is mainly late 20s, early 30s working professionals. Which means most of our members are already earning a good salary and even earning to give, while comfortably paying off what student debt they have.

I do not fit this mold.  Read: I'm broke.

I earn a decent salary now for an entry level admin job. But I graduated college as the market crashed in 2009. I have debt with high interest. I have the support of a great family, but we have always lived paycheck to paycheck. I chose to work in a field that does not pay well. I live in an expensive city. All this culminates to mean that every month I run my finances through the calculator. It means that frequently my bank account reads $3 for a day or two before my paycheck. It means I have to budget in coffee dates and doctor visits.

When I’m surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place*

All this means that I am fairly consistently thinking about money. Not always stressed about it, but always thinking about it. I have the running tally sheet of expenses in my head, that gets pulled up every time someone suggests we grab dinner. It means I have a small constant drain on my thought process, on my decision making abilities, and my emotional stability.

It means that every time I organize a meet-up for EA I have to worry about who is paying for snacks. It means that I feel guilty eating dinner I know someone else paid for, even though I know the expense has very little impact on them. It means that I carry cash to pitch in whenever possible. This is partially because I fear standing out among my EA group*, but mostly because when you are lower income you value and count money closely.

And that seems like the main difference. I feel each dollar spent, even when it isn't my dollar.

When I'm surrounded by people I know earn enough to give away 10% of their income and still not sweat buying dinner for 7 people I feel out of place. I am in awe of being able to do that. I feel fully the fact that this simple difference puts me at a disadvantage to those around me*. And I wonder how to relate to these people I am supposed to be organizing, motivating, and advising.

I'm well aware of my own privilege and I know I not nearly as bad off as most low income people in this country. But the fact that I can feel so out of place at EA meetings, given the relatively low difference in income between myself and my peers, I realize that truly low income individuals would likely not feel comfortable in our group at all. And that makes me inexplicably sad.

As a culture we have a tenancy to brush over economic diversity when discussing inclusion. Sadly, I think this is because it is closely related with ethnic and racial diversity. Also because we just don't like to talk about money. I believe that effective altruism can feel very exclusionary to those of lower economic status, and that this group is incredibly underrepresented within EA (for a discussion of why homogeneity is detrimental see my previous posts about diversity).

So we naturally don’t socialize with people that spend above our means.

One reason why EA is lacking economic diversity is because we tend to naturally separate ourselves based on class; as I illustrate in my experiences above, it feels icky to not be able to keep up. So we naturally don't socialize with people that spend above our means. But this distinction, this other-ness becomes clearer and more prevalent when hanging around effective altruists because we value talking about money and how much we donate.

But this means we are missing a huge chunk of donors! Because people of lower income donate lots of money. Like this ineractive map, most of these references focus on percentage donated, which actually works out to slightly less money than the donations by larger donors. But the inclination for altruism seems stronger in lower and middle income individuals (perhaps because we feel each dollar spent). It may be worth considering that it is easier to convince someone who is already donating to change their charitable giving than it is to convince someone to start giving, or give more.

Perhaps beyond diversity, it may be more effective to be wooing lower income donors.

So I decided I would start raising my hand, and raising it higher. Now when the question goes out in groups if everyone is a tech worker I swing my hand up and practically yell "I'm not!" When I was talking with people about plans to attend EA Global I explicitly mentioned that money was my limiting factor. Even though it made me cringe each time I said it. Of course no one minded, and it meant I got some support from friends. But that isn't why I said it.

I point out my lack of money to other EA people now, not for myself, but for those who are not there. Those that have either felt excluded from, or never even heard of, EA specifically because of their income level. I own the fact I am lacking in funds so that our community stays cognizant of the fact that not everyone who cares about effectiveness is a well-off tech worker. Because lots of people can't meet for coffee twice a week to discuss cause prioritization or AI risk. Because $10 a week on coffee is just too damn much. Because Lyft rides are expensive y'all! Because $400 for a conference registration can be hugely prohibitive (a gigantic shout out to everyone who has supported the scholarship program!).

I hope that my uncomfortable declarations of my economic status lead more of us to be inclusive, and creates space for our group to grow into including more economic diversity.

Because diversity is good!

And low income donors give a larger percentage

*Please note that feelings of inadequacy expressed are not due to discriminatory acts of members of my group, or EA members in general, but are more accurately attributed to societal pressures and my internal dialog. In no way has anyone ever explicitly made me feel unwelcome, more that society tells us that our value is closely tied to our wealth.