The High Price of Democracy

Registration for General Assembly starts on Monday.  I haven't been to the last two General Assemblies -- I haven't felt like I could afford it.  This year I intend to go, even though, well, I still can't afford it.  There are some ways to cut expenses for GA--you can have a roommate, or stay in a cheaper hotel far away from the conference center, and spend the time and energy and money to figure out how to get to and from the conference center.  I will most likely do this.  But there are some ways that the expenses can't be cut--there's no reduced rate based on financial need for the GA registration.  I look forward to the day when I can vote on everything from my home computer, watch the events on the streaming video, and have no need to travel across the country to participate in our democratic process.  This past year it got closer--I was able to vote for president by absentee ballot, and I was able to watch some of the proceedings.  Meanwhile, here's a look at the cost of our democracy:

GA early bird registration:  $310
Registration for UUMA Ministry Days: $165
Single room at cheapest GA hotel for six nights: $690
(I usually travel with a child, and the U of MN option doesn't allow young children.)
Childcare program: $175 (no childcare currently available during Ministry Days, however)
Travel for one: $342
(Cheapest flight on Travelocity today.  Mileage would be $676, and I'll probably drive.)
So far that is: $1682. 
This doesn't include: meals, incidentals, cost of extra programs (i.e. alumni dinner), or purchasing anything in the exhibit hall.  The overall cost of GA for a minister actually and easily tops $2000. 

But, you say, don't ministers have professional expenses to cover this?  Well, yes.  And that's about what's left in my professional expenses for the year right now, after having paid for two conferences, my UUMA chapter meeting and my minister's study group, in the fall.  The problem is I haven't turned in the expenses for my winter chapter meeting, or for our district assembly, or for any books, meals, or other mileage.  Once I turn in those?  General Assembly will be out of my pocket.  So I can choose to pay for it out of pocket, or not attend for the third year in a row.  I'm sure I'm not the only minister for whom this is true.

Until we get a GA that's fully accessible from one's office desk, we need to have a recognition that the high cost of GA is prohibitive for people on low incomes, and also our religious professionals serving small and rural churches. 

What does this mean?  It means our business is being voted on by those who can afford GA, and that's a limited percentage of our UU members.  It's a classist system, wherein we are ruled by the wealthy elite.  That's the harsh and extreme way of putting it.  But it's essentially true.  Churches can try to change this by setting aside money to help members attend General Assembly, but I've yet to see a church where $2000 is set aside for each delegate.  The vast majority of delegates to General Assembly fund themselves.

In recent articles in the UU World, Paul Rasor asked, "Can Unitarian Universalism Change?" and Rosemary Bray McNatt answered, "We Must Change."  They were speaking of the alienating culture of UU churches to racial and ethnic minorities, primarily.  But we must also change in our alienation of people by class groups.  There's an assumption in many of our churches and in our association that all of our members are college-educated working middle-class professionals.  And, granted, there are many churches that look like that.  But there are those that don't, and we need to honor that they need a vote, too.

During my past five years as minister in this small, rural church, with many working-class folk, only two members have attended General Assembly, and I've attended twice.  That means we cast four votes out of a possible fifteen.  I hope this year, with GA in the Midwest in a town where several of my members have connections, we can increase our percentage.  But more than that, I hope that we can change our GA culture to make it more accessible for all. 


Lizard Eater said…
Hear, hear!

No childcare during Ministry Days?

As ChaliceChick would say, *headdesk*.
Anonymous said…
I think a comment error happened, so sorry if this gets posted twice.

I'm thinking about going to my first ever GA this year, because its the first time it's been financially feasible for me to go (although, ironically, it'd be cheaper for me to go to Vegas.) I'm 27. Folks my age don't have the 1500ish dollars its going to take.

It is classist, I agree, but there is also a generational problem here, because people like me who are starting off in their careers, post-college just don't have that kind of money around. I wouldn't, if it weren't for, well, my grandma's will. As I've never been to a GA I can't comment for sure, but I truly doubt the amount of young adults who attend GA are anything close to representing our true numbers in congregations.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Good news on the childcare front - it looks like GA childcare has been expanded to all day Wednesday, which covers the bulk of Ministry days.
Robin Edgar said…
And then of course there are those who would argue that UUA GA's aren't *really* all that democratic at all. . .

So just what *are* you and other UUs actually paying for Rev. Cyn?
Heather said…
Another aspect of this is that people in the ministerial credentialling process are expected to have attended GA. $2000 for seminarians?

Sure, there are ways to be frugal. The GA site is very helpful in that regard. But someone who is volunteering 24 hours during GA, and following the other frugal options, is having a very different experience from someone not similarly constrained.
Cynthia Landrum said…
I agree Heather, except that I don't find their suggestions all that helpful! I'm already trying to spend frugally, and their fund raising ideas are either too time-consuming or not practical for a minister to do. I think they need to have more sliding-scale options for registration for ministers and seminarians in particular.
Eric said…
Well, one thing that's happening this year is that the Prairie Star District is offering to pay the registration cost for seminarians in the district. As you point out, it's not the bulk of the cost, but it's a start, and perhaps something other districts might consider. However, I think that if the Fifth Principle Project keeps going the direction they're pointing in this is all going to be moot anyway.

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