The Pros and Cons Of Collective Living

DudesGroupLast year we spoke to a radical bride, Rebecca, who had bought a house with her groom and another couple, one member of which was pregnant. Twelve months later, Rebecca still shares the house with her husband Ari — who wrote about their unconventional arrangement for The Atlantic — as well as the other couple and their baby. All four adults work: one is a midwife, one is a labor lawyer, one is in progressive city politics, and one is at a Jewish social-and-racial justice nonprofit. The baby is a baby, but she does her part too I’m sure and smiles when people play the guitar.

I’ve visited the house and marveled at how normal as well as how functional it seems. And, with my own little family unit, I’ve discussed trying some version of this arrangement, because the plusses of it seem clear: company; cost-saving; built-in baby sitting and chore-sharing; less loneliness and isolation; a livelier and more vibrant day-to-day life. But it’s hard to get the pieces to fall into place. You have to find other people who you like and trust and who meet other key requirements, people who value some privacy yet also some communality, who have similar attitudes toward money and responsibility, who want to stick around for long enough that owning a house together is feasible.

You have to agree on a place to live, which is hard enough for two people: what large-ish town or small-ish city is a sufficiently welcoming and close to family, or far from it, as the case may be? Cleveland maybe, or Des Moines, parts of which are recovering from post-industrial slumps in intriguing and appealing ways? Hartford maybe, where you could find a cool, affordable nine-bedroom but then have to fight your neighbors to keep it?

Philly? 

Ah, Philly, specifically West Philly, where earnest, well-educated anarchists go to raise chickens, agitate for social change, and procreate*. Molly Osberg, of TPM’s vertical Slice, explores what might be a, if not the, new American dream.

I’m here, at the home of seven adults not related by blood and two children, to find out why one would choose to live somewhere that requires such an extreme shoe-storage situation. What does it look like, in an age of post-recession scarcity, for a group of people to successfully weather their late twenties and early thirties together, to embark on the great child-rearing mission in a shared home? …

for some of us, the choice to rear children has become something akin to a luxury good. In the last few years, the panic over whether women—or anyone, really—can afford to succeed while raising a family has reached a fever pitch. The question gnaws at people like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter, for whom even extreme privilege is not enough to guarantee they “have it all.” In the absence of a national childcare system or longer parental leave, companies like Apple and Facebook pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. So given that the most affluent feel under the gun, how are the rest of us even supposed to consider raising children, given the financial and institutional barriers?

Knowing all this doesn’t mean people my age have come up with solutions. Even if I were the type to want 2.5 kids and a white picket fence when I “grow up,” what are my options? Save up for a down payment I won’t be able to afford until I’m 40? Shell out thousands of freelancer dollars for childcare?

This resonates with me, especially in conjunction with this essay from new dad Matt Yglesias, “7 Things Becoming A Parent Has Taught Me I Was Right About All Along.”

Motherhood and apple pie are said to be two things nobody in politics can be against. But the stark reality is that almost nothing in American public policy suggests our society values children or parenting. The United States of America has always been conceived of as an ongoing, multigenerational scheme — it’s right in the constitution that the point is to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” For that scheme to continue, a large fraction of the country’s adults need to have two or three kids. But public policy treats children largely as a kind of expensive luxury good rather than a social necessity.

The $1,000 federal Child Tax Credit, for example, is much less generous than the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars.

Yglesias doesn’t suggest that the answer is for couples to go in together and share living spaces. Perhaps it did not occur to him, or perhaps he thinks it is not a feasible solution for most people. (I didn’t realize til about halfway through the piece that I know like half the people who are or were in that West Philly house; they are a very specific kind of character, that is for sure, and have a higher tolerance for processing than most.)

My sense is that Yglesias would prefer the government to take his advice and make important large-scale changes to employment law, health care systems, and the tax code. I am all about that too! But in the meantime, while we wait, should communal living be a more viable alternative?

It shouldn’t have to be necessary, but since it is, should we all consider it more seriously?

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