The Poverty of AA.
Today is open enrollment in MECMC’s health plan. I get to choose my various medical and dental plans, and decline a bunch of coverage that doesn’t apply to me. I got the Cadillac health-plan, because why not? It’s cheap when it’s just for one person. It costs about $175/mo, and I get $76 a month discount because I don’t smoke and did all the mildly invasive and privacy-stripping health assessments that MECMC offers to incentivize health awareness. I also declined supplemental life insurance coverage, because I have no dependents and I’m 38 and in good health. But I get one year’s salary as basic coverage and there’s nothing I can do about that. So I needed to choose a beneficiary.
I went to twitter and asked who wanted to be my beneficiary. Nobody pounced. But I was asked if it were something I could donate to charity. It is. But my immediate thought was Alcoholics Anonymous. And of course, they won’t take it. I mentioned this on twitter, and people were very surprised. Why wouldn’t AA accept a gift of that sort? Well, the reasons are myriad and compelling. To me at least.
When AA was founded, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had some grand designs. They thought of building AA hospitals and sending out AA evangelists. All those ideas collapsed, and thank goodness they did. Instead, AA adopted a principle of disorganization and poverty. And I think that this has saved millions of lives. If AA were an organization in the traditional sense, with the kind of membership it has (Two million? More? It remains unknown.), it would immediately be a major player in the healthcare foundation world.
But it isn’t. AA doesn’t fund research. It doesn’t lobby congress. It doesn’t take positions on health care. It doesn’t take positions of any kind. Because as soon as the organization has an opinion on anything other than how to stop drinking and live a better life, it opens itself to controversy. And then, alcoholics who have different opinions about health care delivery, or alcohol research, or congressional funding, or anything that AA might take a position on, will have reason to say: “Those people can’t help me.”
This is why AA has never taken an organizational opinion on any topic other than recovery from alcoholism. And even there, it’s not a hard opinion. It’s not: “AA’s way is the only way to recover.” It’s: “We think this way works for people who dedicate themselves to it. Our evidence for that is that millions of people have succeeded.”
We maintain our effectiveness at helping people recover by refusing to participate in all the distractions that divide people. AA’s institutional vow of poverty is written in our traditions. The sixth: “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” The seventh: “Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”
You cannot go in to a AA central office, tell them you’re not an alcoholic, and then give them money. They will decline it. (At least, they should. The lack of organization means that you can never truly predict what will happen.) We are self-supporting. It’s important. Each of us contributes because each of us benefits. We are our own benefactors. We all have skin in the game. If we accept donations from non-AA members, we’d eventually likely have to cede some influence over our program to them.
There’s even a famous story of a very rich AA member leaving more than a million dollars to AA in her will. It was declined. We do not have any desire to be wealthy, institutionally. I believe the current limit on posthumous donations is $3,000.
Our poverty is a source of unity. Strength. Investment. Solidarity. We don’t want money to corrupt the individuals who have positions of service and responsibility. We don’t want prestige to seduce us into policy and program statements. We are simply a loose-knit band of drunks. Saving each other’s lives. It’s all we do.