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Math Geek Mom: Altruism, and the Wild West
September 24, 2009 - 9:47pm

The term “altruism” is used in economics to describe the situation where one person’s well being depends, in part, on the well being of another, perhaps leading to donations of time or money. In contrast, the term “impure altruism” is used, without any sense of judgment on the giver, to describe a situation where the giver improves their own well-being not just from the improved state of the recipient, but also from the act of giving itself. The giver may derive some benefit from the act of giving, such as a “warm glow” feeling, over and above the joy of seeing the recipient’s lot in life improve. As much as I would like to think of myself as a “pure” altruist, I admit that it was impure altruism that led me to accept a position on the board of directors of a group that works to find long-term housing for chronically homeless people who suffer from mental illness. I also realize, however, that my initial interest in the group came from my own experience of moving to Boston in 1985, an experience that I have heard some describe as “radicalization by experience.”

The 1985 housing market in Boston was, in many ways, a throwback to the “Wild West”. Housing prices were increasing at unbelievable rates, and to cash in on the wealth, realtors were springing up on every street corner, offering to help customers find housing in the inflated market. What used to be entry-level housing was quickly being bought up and transformed into high-end condominiums, and the prices of what was left were increasing almost daily. Into this I arrived, with a small stipend that was more money than I had ever made before. I felt rich, but soon found that I was not.

My experience of trying to find a safe and affordable place to live as I entered graduate school was very difficult, as I was immediately bounced from an apartment that had been sublet over the summer and then trashed to another apartment which I planned to share with three young women who I met at a housing workshop. I learned within weeks that I was not going to be able to live with those women if I was to succeed in graduate school, and that I needed to move. I found a “studio” apartment in a large old Victorian home and moved into it, but not before I took my first set of final exams as a graduate student while staying with a friend and sleeping on her couch. Once into my third apartment, all seemed to be going well until I came home one day to see my new landlord disconnecting the sink of the kitchenette in my studio. It seems that someone turned in my apartment as an illegal apartment, although, until then, I didn’t know there was such a thing. I would be allowed to stay there, but not with the kitchen intact, as the presence of the kitchen made it an apartment, which broke zoning laws. I used to say of the whole situation “first they took everything but the kitchen sink, and then they took the kitchen sink”. As I said, those days were basically the “Wild West” in the housing market in Boston.

When I look back on my experience of trying to move to Boston as a graduate student, I realize that many of my problems arose from the fact that I was much too naïve when I arrived in town, and from the fact that I was trying to pinch pennies at every corner. However, my experiences were not as bad as they could have been. After all, I had friends with a couch and parents only a few hours away who could help me move on short notice. I also had a small amount of money that I had earned over the previous summer, so I had access to resources that many people do not have. Of course, I did not have any children to care for, which would have made things much more difficult. And, most importantly, I had many of the survival skills necessary to navigate the difficult situation. Still, I remember the sense of disorientation that I felt when I had to find food to eat on campus almost every day, since I did not have access to a working kitchen, and I remember how good it felt, when I finally found my fourth and final apartment in nine months, to say to a friend after class, “I’m going home”. I realized as I experienced these trials that many people who find themselves in similar situations do not have access to such resources. And that is why I joined the board of directors of Extended Housing of Lake County, Ohio.

Tonight is our annual fund raiser. And what is the theme of the fund raiser this year? The Wild West!


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