EA/​Rationalist Safety Nets: Promising, but Arduous

Rigor: Quickly written (~6 hours). Originally made as a Facebook post that emphasized the “Potential Challenges” section. There’s some discussion there.

Epistemic Status: This mostly comes from personal experiences and discussions with community members in the last few years.

Many thanks to Aaron Gertler, Stefan Schubert, Julia Wise, and Evan Gaensbauer for feedback directly on this post. Also, thanks for everyone involved in the Facebook discussion.


I’ve been around EA/​rationality for several years now (starting in 2008, during college). I’ve seen several instances where promising people (myself included) could have really used some help.

Potential help includes:

  • Money

  • Good mental health support

  • Friends or helpers, for when things are tough

  • Insurance (broader than health insurance)

I’m based in the United States. Government benefits here are substantially worse than in some European countries, so it’s possible these concerns don’t apply elsewhere.

I think interventions in these areas could be valuable. However, I believe they’re unusually challenging to implement. I encourage future groups tackling this space to plan accordingly. I also hope that people upset with a lack of existing infrastructure can sympathize with the challenges around it.

Also, see this post for related discussion: An Emergency Fund for Effective Altruists.[1]

Evidence of the Problem

Some evidence of what I’m referring to includes:

  • Howie’s podcast with 80,000 Hours went into detail about hard times he’s had and help he received. I’m thankful that this information was made public. It’s probably the best case study we have now within our community. I think it’s pretty clear that Howie Lempel is doing great work, and his situation might have turned grimmer if things had gone a bit differently, including if he had less support. While I’m happy he had this support, this support seemed exceptional compared to other things I’ve seen and would expect.

  • I have had a few scares. Earlier on in my career, I was very low on money and had health problems that I was worried might put me on disability or worse.

  • I’ve known several effective altruists and rationalists who have been very low on funding for some possibly-crucial parts of their lives. Some have gone on later to do very well, but it’s easy to imagine it going differently. Unlike with Howie Lempel’s case, they had rough spots before they did valuable work.

  • In general, the situation for many people in the United States (including and outside of our communities) seems pretty bad, so the prior is poor. Many people have feeble social support structures. (There’s quite a bit of literature on this topic.)

Our communities already have a few valuable initiatives. Some of these include (just off the top of my head):

Perhaps we can learn from religious communities. A while ago, I chatted to a Mormon effective altruist who explained how their system works. Mormons regularly tithe 10% of their income to the Mormon church, but in return, the church seems to take care of them when they’re down. I’ve recently been watching videos from Peter Santenello about the Hasidic Jewish and the Amish communities, and they seem to have similar systems.

Potential Challenges

At this point, there are some wealthy people in and around effective altruism. So if there are straightforward spending opportunities that would be competitive through an EA lens, there could be funding for them.

Unfortunately, I think setting up a safety net would result in several nasty complications. These might be particularly grueling if the program were intended to itself be an “effective intervention” instead of a “community pool, funded by and benefiting regular effective altruists.

These complications include:

  1. It’s tough to discern “I’m giving money to people with high EV” from “I’m giving money to friends and people I want favors from.” So I think anyone who tried to do this would have a complex case to make, and onlookers would assume it was corrupt. Additionally, I beleive such a process would be ripe for potential corruption.

  2. Decisions about who to exclude are some of the least enjoyable decisions. There are tons and tons of people out there with horrible situations. Some people are particularly good at putting together sob stories, and others have critical stories but are too polite to speak up. It’s kind of like the real-life version of Papers, Please.

  3. It’s easy to conflate “a good-hearted person who sort of morally “deserves” money, but is unlikely to produce much social impact” from “some jerk we don’t like, but we expect to produce more social impact.

  4. Many people hate being evaluated in this way. People don’t like being rejected for jobs, and this might be more intense, as it might have to be a broader estimate. (Unlike with employment, you couldn’t claim, “Maybe you’re high-value, but you’re not a fit for this specific role”). If the application process were to take place when someone’s in need, then that person might already be in an emotionally challenging place.

  5. Social safety nets make it harder to leave a community or pursue other, independent goals. It seems really unhealthy to have a situation where someone feels like they need to signal their belonging in a community or overstate their impact in order to get basic food or psychological services. Similarly bad, people who don’t believe in effective altruism, but need a safety net, might feel pressured into trying to shmooze with the right people and pretend.

  6. It’s hard to tell who should qualify for services. The critical data might be confidential. Applicants want this to be done emotionally — “just talk to me, and I’ll explain it” — but this seems to me like the least objective or high-quality way to make the decision.

  7. Where they exist, non-governmental community-wide safety nets are created by religious organizations. Creating an EA variant might make EA seem weirder.

I think the number one problem here is that we’re just in a harsh world, and there are lots of great people out there going through callous times. I find much of the situation globally heartbreaking.

But trying to fix it for the “most altruistic people in expectation” is difficult.

On reflecting over this list, I think many of these concerns are common for social workers and similar professions. I imagine they could be overcome with the right efforts.

Possible Research Questions

If you don’t want to set up an organization yet, but you are interested in doing investigation on this topic, here’s a list of quick questions I have at this point.

Questions for individuals who might get into challenging circumstances:

  • Are economic/​health challenges common in EA, and how severe are they?

  • How severe are downwards spirals that come from health/​mental health/​poverty, for people in our circles?

  • Are there any suitable preventative measures people could take? Like, insurance options or clever health measures?

Questions for individuals interested in making better programs:

  • How good or bad a job are we doing now?

  • What should the EA strategy be, if any, for single-time payments?

  • What social infrastructure do we currently have in place for identifying and helping people in need? Can we improve this using simple techniques, like having a Google Group for funders interested in making 1-off payments?

  • What do other communities do (including religious communities)? What might we be able to learn from them?

  • Would safety net programs make more sense as community-wide initiatives without high effectiveness requirements, or as effective charitable interventions? Or maybe somewhere in-between?

  • What sorts of skill sets might we want for setting up these programs?

[1] Note that I wrote this post on Facebook a few weeks before this other post came out. However, I converted the Facebook post to an EA Forum post earlier because of that piece. (Just in case more people were actively considering setting up such a service).