restricted access 4. What Goes around Comes Around: Reciprocity in a Poor People’s Social Network
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120 4 What Goes around Comes Around Reciprocity in a Poor People’s Social Network I said [to a KWRU leader], “You gave me this—it wasn’t a palace—but you gave me and my daughter a roof over my head and we worked for that. We worked for that.” . . . I said, “Look, you find me a place, I be right there. If I get my housing I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna come back here and fight for those ones that are still homeless.” . . . I go to every function, international meetings.  .  .  . I do everything. Everything. —CC, 44, KWRU member who was once homeless I meet Stefanie, a young Latina mother of two girls, when she has just walked into KWRU for the first time to get some help securing food stamps. Her long dark hair is pulled back into a smooth ponytail, revealing small gold-colored earrings. I interview her the following week. She and her girls live not far from the office, in West Kensington, with her mother, father, and brother. She pays rent to her parents, purchases her own food, and pays Rent-a-Center every month for her bedroom set, but the state views her as part of their household and therefore she cannot qualify for food stamps. She counts two women as close friends, but both are out of state and neither is a source of support. She plans to volunteer in the office, answering phones and assisting others who walk in for help. She explains working in the KWRU office in terms of reciprocal obligations: There’s some people out there that be like, “Oh, I’m not gonna go do that, they’re not gonna pay me for that.” But you’re helping other people, they help you, you know what I mean? . . . That’s how they pay you back. They’re helping you. What Goes around Comes Around | 121 Stefanie explicitly points out the way social capital mimics financial capital under KWRU’s reciprocity norms—KWRU doesn’t pay money for her labors, but it “pays” in support. Membership in KWRU provides social capital, and norms of reciprocity organize this social capital within KWRU’s membership. Social networks are built on reciprocity.1 Although not all KWRU members understand this as quickly as Stefanie does, reciprocity is a crucial component of KWRU membership. Virtually all my interviews with KWRU members include some reference to this principle. This lays bare the double-edged sword of social capital—to invest in it, one must give away time and other resources. As chapter 2 emphasized, most participants in this study had a strong inclination to safeguard those resources for themselves, and this ensured that they had minimal social capital. The service KWRU requires of its members is substantial because members have so few resources. New members learn that they need to give their time by volunteering at the office and participating in protest rallies. Due to the limits of Philadelphia’s transportation system, especially in poor areas, most members had to travel hours to fulfill these obligations.2 The only transportation available for free in Philadelphia is walking, and in bad weather showing up to the office to volunteer or at a rally to add to the strength of the protest might require hours in rain, cold, or heat. Members I spoke with typically walked to the office, even from far away; some took city buses when they had tokens or money for the fare.3 There are both positive and negative aspects of reciprocity, as I touched on in chapter 2. Many participants recount good feelings about giving and receiving help. In a context where most people believe in individualism, both giving and receiving help from others elicits complicated emotions. Stack argues that “poverty creates a necessity for this exchange of goods and services” and that the “powerful obligation to exchange is a profoundly creative adaptation to poverty.”4 While she studied poor people over four decades ago, my findings suggest that when poor people create a network similar to the one she found, these insights still apply. Participants in KWRU as well as nonmembers report feelings of gratitude and security from reciprocity, yet many see it as negative when one party in an exchange relationship is unable to fulfill reciprocal norms. When participants feel used, such as when they’ve provided help 122 | What Goes around Comes Around only to be left in the lurch when they confront needs of...


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