What does the Trump Era mean for Spare Change News? In the simplest terms, it means that we as an organization feel called to think bigger. The original vision of the Spare Change founders to “build a bridge between the haves and the have nots” takes on a new urgency today as current events suggest that marginalized populations are likely to face a shredded safety net.
For 25 years, this newspaper has provided over 1,000 people the chance to earn an income during low periods in their lives. Spare Change News has a non-discriminatory hiring policy that allows us to give individuals who have disabilities, no high school education, prison records and personal hardships a chance to participate in a community of individuals who abide by a set of basic rules that exist to define professional behavior.
Of the several dozen vendors who have been affiliated with Spare Change for more than a decade, Spare Change has become both a safety net and a family. These long-term vendors are the faces many of you have come to know and whom some of you have sought to help, whether it be through checking in with us when they are missing or donating warm weather gear so they can continue to work in the winter.
That said, Spare Change News is not your typical social service agency, even as it serves an economically disenfranchised community. In our 25-year history, we have never sought state or federal funding because we feel to do so would compromise our freedom to publish stories about the real-world consequences of government policy.
Today, our paper is a bit of an anachronism because we reach the majority of our readers through the sale of a product (a print newspaper) that many feel to be obsolete. To stay current with the marketplace, we also have a website (sparechangenews.net) that we encourage you to take a look at to see content that is both current and from our archives.
The reason we continue to print Spare Change News is because it provides the possibility for the vendor/customer relationship. Through relationship, we learn to respect one another. Truly, it is in each transaction that the bridge between the haves and the have nots is strengthened.
For the past year and a half, I have sought to solve the riddle of what comes next for Spare Change News vendors who now have an average age of between 50 and 70. The core of top sellers is slowly contracting as vendors succumb to the sort of health problems that are exacerbated by living on the street. Some of our dear friends have died.
The vendors who remain with us are less able to stand out in extreme weather and move a little slower than they did 20 years ago. This translates into a shrinking circulation even as members of the public tell us, “We love Spare Change but cannot find vendors outside of Cambridge anymore.” Public interest in the paper is at a high point, but we need more vendors.
While Spare Change remains beloved within the Cambridge community, the contracting core of vendors creates the challenge of an incremental rise in production costs for each individual paper. Coupled with the reality that private sector grants tend to prioritize growing organizations that serve individuals under the age of 30, Spare Change has survived largely because of our twice-yearly appeals.
Spare Change is a newspaper that is supported financially by the vendors who receive 15 free papers each paper cycle (a $30 value) and who are then encouraged to return with that money to purchase additional papers for 50 cents each. The problem the declining vendor core represents is that each paper costs close to $1 to produce, so we rely on donations to augment the sales to vendors.
For the past year and a half, we have identified a need to grow that core of top sellers, so we have tried a variety of initiatives that have included making presentations at homeless shelters, and street recruiting to bring in younger vendors. The move to increase the cover price was both to give our current members more money from each sale and to counter the typical panhandler response: “I get a dollar anyway. Why should I sell a paper?”
What we have learned is that these younger homeless recruits tend to stay with us for a shorter time because they either move into permanent jobs and housing (which we are delighted to see), or they take their 15 free papers each cycle and then spend the money to feed an addiction rather than reinvest that money to buy more papers.
Our conclusion is that we need a larger volume of young vendors (who we recognize will stay with us for a short period) who do not have substance abuse problems, as this will allow us to boost our circulation and keep the incremental costs of production from rising beyond what we can subsidize.
Here’s how we think we can solve that problem in a way that benefits all parties. Recognizing that today’s students and recent college graduates are often economically crippled by the twin hardships of rising rents and student loan debt, we are opening up the opportunity to become a vendor to students or recent graduates who are struggling to make ends meet.
Our vendors set their own hours as independent contractors selling a product that can net between $10 and $25 per hour. This extra income could help pay down student debt.
Since the inauguration of President Trump, it has become clear that independent journalism is more necessary than ever in order to battle propaganda that will lead to strengthened support for public policy that has a very real cost to the basic human dignity of marginalized populations. We have worked hard over the past year to publish more professional journalism alongside the first-person accounts of our vendors in order to increase the quality of journalism in each issue.
Spare Change News is and will remain non partisan even as our concern for the economically disenfranchised informs our perspective as a social justice newspaper. We aren’t interested in pushing anyone’s political agenda.
We want to publish solutions-focused journalism (not “gotcha” or sensationalist pieces) grounded in objective journalism, so we can offer a product with content that all vendors can be proud to sell. This is not a “pity paper.” Spare Change News seeks to actively encourage alliances that will lead to economic progress for all Massachusetts citizens.
We also want to fulfill the original mission of building a bridge between the haves and have nots in a way that helps communities meet the needs of their homeless people by connecting them to resources in the private sector instead of sending them to an already overwhelmed shelter system in Boston.
In 2018, Spare Change News wants to give Massachusetts residents who feel they are unable to progress because of debt and the rising costs of housing a way to earn income that will allow for debt to be paid down so that personal progress can be achieved. You don’t have to be homeless to benefit from economic empowerment.
If you believe that your spiritual community or civic organization would be interested in learning more about the support that Spare Change News can offer your team as you seek to empower the economically disenfranchised in your own communities, I invite you to reach out to me (Katherine Bennett, executive director, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn about our new Ambassador program.
If you are someone who is overwhelmed by rising rent costs and/or student loan debt, I encourage you to consider the possibility of becoming an independent contractor for Spare Change News. As a vendor, you will also have the option of working with a writing mentor in our computer center to tell your story in Spare Change News and receive both a $50 payment and the ability to say you are a published writer.
Could Spare Change News offer you or someone you know hope in the Trump era? Come visit us during our regular distribution hours of 10–3 Monday through Saturday at 1151 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge to find out. We are two blocks from the Harvard Square T station.
Together, we can build a better future.
Katherine Bennett is the executive director of the Homeless Empowerment Project.