For years, if you had asked me how I measured wealth, I’d have had a ready answer: time, books and berries in the freezer.
Money was nice, sure, but for me the first three offered a more direct route to happiness.
Nowadays, I’d probably fit the laughter of my children and a good conversation with my husband on the list, though that doesn’t roll off the tongue as musically. Money, still nice, still isn’t worthy of a mention.
There’s a point at which money does matter: When you are in dire enough poverty that your basic needs are not met. At that point, money can make us happier. But research has shown there’s an upper limit to that. Once you’re out of poverty, additional money adds less and less to happiness until it reaches a point where getting richer doesn’t add to happiness at all.
So I suspect if you asked yourself or many of your neighbors what you or they really valued in life, you’d get an answer similar to mine—perhaps something based on a passion, or a true connection with another person. Even if many us feel as if we could use a little more money, few of us, if any, would answer, “You know, money is the most important thing in the world to me.”
And yet, we can end up living our lives that way. We sometimes focus on work so much that we sacrifice time with our loved ones, thinking we’ll be freer next week or next month, without realizing that children grow up faster than we notice, and these people may not be around when you’re finally ready to make time for them. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories from nurses who comfort people at the end of life, who say no one ever regretted not spending more time at the office.
For our communities, the challenge is a little different: I think sometimes we haven’t thought hard enough about exactly what we’d need to make our communities better.
Think about how we talk about the national economy, for example. So much of the focus is on jobs: How many there are, who’s searching for them, who gets credit when they are made and who’s to blame when they are lost.
And on a national level, this makes sense as a way to think about how the country is doing. But it’s not the whole picture.
What’s the point of a job—it’s actual value? Should a job ensure that a worker can purchase the basic needs of life—or perhaps more?
From a community perspective, there are jobs that support communities, and jobs that do not. Consider, for example, the increasingly common practice of hiring a worker for a 30-hour-a-week job to avoid paying full-time benefits. Many of those jobs also have no set schedule, which makes it difficult to take a second job to supplement the income. If that job is minimum wage, that worker is living in poverty or close to it and will require services from the community, such as food stamps or subsidized child care, instead of being able to give back to it.
And then there are even deeper questions about the nature of work: Should a job actually accomplish something that needs to be done in the world? Should a job help the worker use his or her skills and talents to make the world a better place?
The true value of a job is probably most keenly known by someone who is unemployed, who struggles because of the loss of income, certainly, but also from the sense of no longer feeling useful.
That deeper importance of useful work is why economic development is important in our communities. But we don’t always set up our economic development strategies to support that kind of work.
This is in part because those other characteristics of work are harder to measure. Just plain counting jobs is much more straightforward.
Many of the things we value in rural communities are difficult to measure: the strength of our connections to our neighbors, for example, or how rooted we feel to a place. This makes it hard to put programming in place to support those values.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
First, researchers are working on developing indicators that can help communities measure forms of wealth that aren’t easily counted. This could make policy changes that support a broad-based view of wealth easier to enact.
More importantly, if we don’t pay attention to the things we value when we’re making decisions, we may—with the very best of intentions—do damage to what matters most in our communities.
The stories in this issue look at different kinds of wealth in our communities. I invite you to consider what you value in your community, and in what you’d really like to see it be rich.
Wishing you all time, books and berries in the freezer—or your very own wealth equivalent. ⎨