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Who’s Building the Do-It-Ourselves Economy?

Corporations aren’t hiring, and Washington is gridlocked. Here’s how we take charge of our own livelihoods.
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2. Redefining Middle-Class

Building the local and regional economy will create real prosperity and keep the benefits circulating among ordinary people. But we are approaching the end of an era of cheap energy and seemingly limitless growth. To live within our means, we’ll need to produce and consume less stuff. That may mean less paid work available, at least in some sectors of the economy, so it makes sense to share those jobs and work fewer hours.

Many Americans work too much and are starved for downtime. A shorter workweek could benefit them while opening new jobs for the unemployed. Productivity increases when workers aren’t overstretched. Profits now going to the wealthiest could be distributed to workers so they could afford to work fewer hours and have more time for the rest of life.

Working less also means we have more time to do things for ourselves.

After Corbyn Hightower lost her corporate position, her husband started working at a low-wage job. The family saves money by fixing things that break and making things themselves. Corbyn is refurbishing an old dollhouse with her preschoolers. They spend hours together on this creative project.

Community exchanges transform the Hightowers’ experience from a lonely and scary adventure into a way of life Corbyn has come to appreciate. She shares the harvest from her pear, apple, and orange trees with her neighbors and gives some fruit to a nearby homeless shelter. Her neighbors share with her their apricots, lemons, peaches, plums, blackberries, and cherries.
Learning new DIY skills and building relationships with friends and neighbors builds greater self-reliance and offers opportunities to develop multiple facets of ourselves.

And frequent exchanges among neighbors help reweave a community fabric that has been badly frayed by overstressed lives. Once you get the tools to repair your bicycle, you can fix other people’s bikes or teach them how. When you’re canning jam, it’s easy to make some extra for gifts and exchanges.

All this means we can live with less money, so we can afford to spend less time at a job, which also becomes less central as a source of identity. And these rich networks and practical skills enhance our resilience as we face an uncertain future.

3. A Movement to Rebuild the Dream

We are still a wealthy country. We could use our tax dollars to put Americans to work replacing obsolete energy, water, transportation, and waste systems with infrastructure that can serve us in the resource-constrained times ahead.

We could invest in universal health coverage, which offers people the security to risk launching new businesses and helps make shorter workweeks more feasible. We could fully fund education and job training.

We could save money by cutting the bloated military budget, oversized prison populations, and the drug war. And we’d have the money if everyone—including the wealthiest Americans and large corporations—paid taxes at the rates they paid during the Clinton administration.

To get these sorts of changes, we need the American government to work for all of us, not just for corporations.

Powerful moneyed interests won’t willingly give back the power that has allowed them to acquire most of America’s wealth. We need strong people’s movements to get government to work for ordinary Americans. That’s the way American workers won the 8-hour day, women secured the right to vote, and African Americans ended segregation.

Enlightened politicians may cooperate with these movements, but few will lead them. We the people—through unions, community associations, advocacy groups, and local political groups—will have to set our own agenda and insist that government respond. The Movement to Rebuild the American Dream (see page 48), which is bringing together groups ranging from to AFSCME, offers a promising path toward that end.

The Do-It-Ourselves Economy

Corbyn’s family has not had it easy since they slipped into poverty. They sold their SUV to cover rent and other necessities, and Corbyn blogs about the challenges of biking in the rain and in the blistering heat of the Sacramento area. But she also celebrates getting in shape, saving money, and the discoveries she and her children make when they travel at a slower pace.
Her 12-year-old tells Corbyn she loves her life. Who wouldn’t want chickens in the backyard, long bike rides with the family, and picking apples to take to the homeless shelter?

Corbyn Hightower photo by Lane Hartwell
Living Right
on the "Wrong" Side of Town:

When Corbyn Hightower's financial world fell apart, a ragtag community came together to show how a lively neighborhood grows new livelihoods.

Corbyn has come to appreciate special moments: “Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of this spring, red all the way through, without the slightly-too-tart tang of previous early-season pints. We tried to savor them, to make them last, to appreciate each strawberry for how it’s slightly different from the rest. The way the sparkling flavor and the seeds make it taste almost carbonated. ...

“I think we have to reinvent ‘poor.’ Most everyone in my life is enduring new poverty. … It’s an unfamiliar and scary leap. … And if it turns out that some of these changes feel good, well, then it’s a win-win. The Great Recession is a watershed time for my generation, possibly the era that will live on to define us.”

Many of us have stories like Corbyn’s from our family histories or maybe from right now—stories of hard work, stubborn resilience, and neighbors helping neighbors. Stories of people waking up each day doing what had to be done for the children.

Our descendants need those qualities from us—not acquiescence to powerful interests or passive acceptance of a no-longer-tenable status quo. Our descendants need us to be as radical and as tenacious as our ancestors were.

Sarah van Gelder and Doug Pibel wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor and Doug is managing editor of YES!


  • Less Work, More Living
    Working fewer hours could save our economy, save our sanity, and help save our planet.
  • Want Jobs? Rebuild the Dream
    Interview: Van Jones is leading a national mobilization to rebuild the middle class—through decent work, fair taxes, and opportunities for all.
  • How to Build a People's Movement
    Now’s the time to challenge economic orthodoxy—but only a massive social movement can turn things around.
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