On Abolishing Inheritance and the Untapped Potential of Poor People

Some kids have to grow into their ears; I had to grow into my fingers. They were long enough to catch the eye and spark commentary. People would say I had piano fingers and as a young person I took pride in that. Any indication of potential specialness was of great interest. I never so much as saw a piano as a kid though, and as I got older, there was some sense of missed opportunity… that I could have been something special but it was passing me by.

Jes with two of her housemates, Delilah the dog and Rosalina the cat.

In high school, I went to the piano and voice recitals, art shows, and musicals of my friends. I thought I’m so lucky to know so many talented people. I wish I was talented like them. I thought that they were just inherently better, luck of the draw. It wasn’t in my young mind to factor in how many dollars went into their private lessons. I didn’t know to think about how flexible their parents’ schedules had to be or how much it cost for a childcare provider to drive them to those lessons. I didn’t factor in the extra time they had after school because they didn’t have to work or the psychic space they had to imagine themselves as anything they wanted to be. I just thought about how good they were, how I just wasn’t as good. And when they got scholarships to go to fancy schools based off of their high school extracurriculars it was because they deserved it, had worked so hard for it. Or when they got to choose any school they wanted, the ones with the best programs in the country, it was because they were just lucky, can’t fault them for that.

I was never going to be a great piano player. Certainly, there are brilliant beings who were put on this earth to live into that destiny for whom lack of resources couldn’t stop the melodies from flowing. It’s not my path; I don’t have a lick of rhythm. However, it is also not my path to believe others are better than me or that I am better than others. It’s part of what is so painful about living in a society that teaches us to compare, to judge, and to hate ourselves based upon the findings, but doesn’t teach us that we are being deluded into thinking there was ever an even playing field. The messages about being better than or less than get in there all the time, little grains of sand slowly rubbing us raw. The world is full of people whose talent could bring you to your knees, put tears in your heart, and move you to see life in new ways, but we will never know their brilliance, never utter their names because the playing field is so tilted you’re more likely to become famous for being rich than for having something visionary to offer the world.

Capitalism, while good for innovation, is terrible for creation. Both the creation that is the natural world we depend upon and the creation that our souls thrive upon. An unencumbered ability to create right relation with one another brings into existence vitality rather than apathy, deep enoughness rather than scarcity. My heart yearns for a world outside of capitalism, knows in its fibers that it exists and wants us to work together to get there. By no means does abolishing inheritance undo capitalism, but it’s an interesting place to start.

My salary working for Resource Generation is the highest I’ve ever received. It is not given to me because I’m working harder or doing something more important than others who are making more or less money than me. I’ve worked lots of jobs, many of which were very difficult and paid very little. If labor were truly valued the people growing and harvesting our food, caring for our young, ill and elderly, cleaning homes, laying asphalt, and patching our roofs would be among the global elite. I know that the money we have and what we do have very little in common with one another. Capitalism teaches us that our worth can be extracted and that beings for whom that’s not true — who are not part of the exploitable labor pool — have no worth. There is nothing that could be less true. Detangling the money we do or do not have (be it through jobs, inheritance, disability, unemployment, etc.) from our self-worth is critical to a more balanced sense of self.

People on the extremes of poverty and of wealth are sometimes fed the most intense messages about self. Poverty and wealth must be kept so personal, so individual, so shameful or else the systemic nature of it becomes transparent. There are a few people who are extremely wealthy because there are many, many people who are kept poor. The wealth was stolen, one low wage at a time, one desecration to the earth at a time. Wealth sits around in invisible assets accumulating interest and dust and bones.

Millennials are seeing the largest wealth transfer in history. This is where trickle-down economics is finally happening, flowing into the bank accounts of young, mostly (though not exclusively) white millennials who use it to pay off college, to buy a home, to get a Honda Fit. Meanwhile, those of us who don’t have this invisible net surrounding us are left thinking we’re just not as lucky, just didn’t make good decisions, should have tried harder, etc. It’s like being back in high school, going to the recitals again where no one is talking about how they got there.

Money is a thing we trade for what we desire, it has no value outside of that exchange. What I desire is to live in a world where we take care of one another, where we all get to live into our potential regardless of race, class, gender, nationality, etc. The money that I have access to is how I, in my own very small ways, get to live in the world I want to create. I feel a heaviness in having more than I need and a levity in being able to move it towards projects and people that need it now. I know that there is more joy in sharing than hoarding and I want a world where there is so so much more joy.

There is nothing equitable about trust funds and other such forms of inheritance. It takes no effort to recognize that it’s unfair that some babies immediately start being paid upon entrance to the world. As a doula, I can tell you all babies work very hard to be born regardless of class. It is completely delusional to think of this country as the land of opportunity when from first breath we are being tracked for very different destinies based upon the skin color and net assets (or net deficits) of those we find ourselves in family with.

I do not believe inheritance should exist. If you search your heart, past any defensiveness, my guess is that you don’t either. There is a deep pain in having something others do not, something you know is not yours. We live in a world that has always relied on exploitation with devastating consequence to the spirit. There are many types of inheritance, some a burden, some a boost — some both. Some inheritance comes in trade for a grief no one would choose, some as a surprise you didn’t want, some as a mark of overcoming extreme obstacles and the pride that accompanies that. Whatever the case, my wondering is can we think of inheritance not as an individual asset but as a collective resource? When things (homes, cars, stocks, land, etc.) are given to those with the least amount of need, can we keep them in rotation? Trade it in towards the world we most desire, use inheritance as a means to help shepherd a world more beautiful and equitable than what was handed to us?

Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is we will not be able to undo racialized capitalism without re-envisioning inheritance. For those who have or will inherit large sums I invite you to explore these questions:

  • What do I most desire for our collective wellness and how can the inheritance act in service to that?
  • Did the process of accumulating/extracting money/wealth cause harm and to what communities? Are there ways of using that money to help repair those harms?
  • What messages have I been taught about poor people? In what ways am I making choices that reinforce those stories and in what ways am I making choices that counter them?
  • What barriers exist to me giving my inheritance away and what could support me in overcoming those barriers?
  • How can I participate in and fund fights for systemic change that will abolish the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few?

Jes Kelley is Resource Generation’s Retreat Organizer. 

Resource Generation is a national, multiracial membership-based organization in the U.S. of young people (18-35) committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. Learn more here. 

Jes Kelley

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