Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Must Green Parents Be Poor Parents?

When I was twenty-one, much to the dismay of my family and friends, I quit medical school. I had just come back from working on a public health project in the poorest region of Peru. After two months among Quechua-speaking people in little Andean towns like Huascahura and Huayopuqyo, I made the break from medicine, a decision I had long considered but never built up the courage to do. Rather than spend my life focused on a particular disease or set of diseases, I wanted to devote myself to considering, encountering, and changing the way we think about justice, wealth, and living meaningful lives. Instead of studying a protein in a tapeworm, I wanted to ask why the native peoples of Peru didn’t have the kind sewage systems that would eradicate tapeworms? Why are they poor? What is poverty? Why did my life seem less meaningful than the life of a guy who makes less than $2 a day? I thought the writing life would be the best way for me to explore those questions.

The most common response to my decision from family and friends was, “How are you going to pay for your children’s college education?”

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to pay for my child to attend a private school, I thought. Maybe my future child would not want me to sublimate my ideals and desires in order to save up a three hundred thousand dollar college fund. Maybe my child would want a dad who was actualized, took risks, and lived fully. If I made my career choices based on the college-fund concept of parenting, I was worried that I would become too busy and well-paid to be physically and emotionally present. I asked myself, is a childhood good only if it culminates in attending a US top twenty college like Northwestern or Duke?

After quitting medical school, I worked for a year in publishing. Then I went to graduate school for writing and literature. I made about a thousand dollars a month teaching freshman at the University of Houston. My classes were about analyzing the language of advertising, war, colonialism, and trade agreements. I met my wife at that time and she did the same kind of work. I took a semester off to work for a feminist NGO in India. When I got back, MaGreen and I organized anti-war protests. I felt that I was doing my part in the struggle for global justice. I had to teach myself to live on an extremely tight budget. I bought clothes secondhand, scavenged for used furniture, and cook my own lentils, rice, and vegetables.

As soon as MaGreen and I started to think about having a baby, my mindset started to change. It’s all fine and good to subject yourself to poverty, but doing so to your children is another matter. Accumulating wealth is essential to weathering the big shocks that life inevitably throws at a family like illness, natural disasters, losing your livelihood, or whatever other unspeakable things. We don’t live in a country with a decent safety net. I absolutely don’t want anyone in my family to go through the humiliation and forced poverty of Medicaid, disability, or what’s left of welfare. Forget an Ivy League education without debt, what if we can’t even afford to help our child obtain a decent education at all? Also, I don’t want our child to be burdened with fiscally caring for us when we are elderly.

MaGreen and I, as parents, feel an obligation to build wealth, but at the same time we do not want to abandon our ideals. We will not buy mutual funds that include weapons manufacturers like GE, companies that attempt to patent seeds like Monsanto, or multinationals that rely on sweat-shop labor like Nike and Walmart. Investing in those types of companies will not help create the kind of world I hope our child inherits. We don’t want to hinge our family’s fiscal security on global inequality. Ever since I learned that the East India Tea Company was the first multinational company traded on a stock market, I have refrained from buying any stocks or mutual funds. The East India Tea Company impoverished India, reducing it from one of the wealthiest places on earth to one of the poorest. How can I willingly take part in that system?

We do have one strategy in place. My parents helped us buy a duplex with two apartments in the back. We live in one of the units and rent out the other three. We are providing decent housing to people who make steady, but limited salaries – an electrician, a caterer, a newspaper reporter, and a webmaster at a pipe company. The rental income goes towards our mortgage payments and helps us live in the center of the city. I can bicycle to work and build equity. But our entire financial security cannot depend on one piece of real estate.

My job at Rice University working for the journal Feminist Economics has allowed me to build some savings, but I’m not sure what to do with it. They’re sitting in a savings account that earns less interest than the inflation rate! MaGreen and I are reading Co-Op America’s Guide to Green Investing, which came with our membership to Co-Op America. It lists mutual funds like Domini and Calvert that have social justice and environmental criteria.

Green parents do not have to be poor parents. Some of the people I lived among in Peru were demoralized and resigned to their pitiful lot. Most of them, however, were striving for dignified lives. They tilled rocky desert soil, spun wool, wove rugs, and built their homes from mud. They organized as communities along political and religious lines. MaGreen and I are striving for the same dignity for our family and communities, but we refuse to get a leg up by stepping on those below.


Kate said...

You don't need to have tons of money to be good parents. What you teach Lila will be far more valuable. As hard workers, as caring and responsible citizens, you will be great examples for her.

As loving parents who know when to encourage and when to discipline, when to hug and hold her, and when to let her do her own thing, you will give her what she needs.

My parents did these things for me. They could not afford to pay for my college education, so I got grants and loans and a part-time job, and we were all a little bit poorer for a while, but I turned out okay. And I don't regret one cent of my student loans. I loved going to public school because I loved the diversity of it. I learned in school because I had a yearning for knowledge, because my parents encouraged me to learn and helped me when I hit subjects I didn't understand.

Lila will do well in any school because her parents will be there to guide her, and to back her up and fight for her right to an education if the teacher or the school system is bad. And she will learn to notice when things aren't right, and stand up for herself and others.

She will be wise and frugal because she will know where money comes from. She will spend her money with thought and deliberation because she will know the difference of where her money goes if she's shopping at a corporate store versus shopping at a local mom and pop. She will know the difference between produce at the chain grocery and produce at the Farmer's Market.

In short, she will be a happy and successful person because she will be loved.

Rebecca said...

Hey Raj and Miah,

It's Laura's sister here. I am also concerned about socially responsible investing, and I have invested in Pax World Funds and Citizens Funds, which both have social screens. Pax World Funds (www.paxworld.com) was the first public mutual fund to have social screenings. Citizens Funds (www.citizensfunds.com) has an index fund, its equivalent of the S&P 500, that regularly outperforms the S&P 500.

Check out their websites, both of which list their screening criteria, and see what you think!