You may have received an email similar to the one I recently received. It was from a small music venue that I’ve been to several times over the past year. It employs bartenders, security guards, doormen, managers, production and marketing staff, and as a result of the coronavirus, is now looking at a potential two-month closure of its business. The venue has asked for money from patrons to try to make up for anticipated lost income. It will be bringing in exactly zero money during that time frame (possibly longer), and because of that is not in a position to pay its people. So the venue’s owners created a GoFundMe page, and are asking for help.
We’re just two days into a general shutdown here in Pennsylvania, and I suspect that there will be many, many more emails just like this one. Already, desperate pleas for money have begun to spread across the internet as the scope of a nationwide shutdown of all but essential services becomes clearer, sending ripple effects throughout American society that most have not even begun to contemplate. But there is only so much donating people can do. What happens when the need becomes so overwhelming that tens of thousands of these GoFundMe sites appear?
GoFundMe was founded in 2010, and from its inception, unlike other crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, it has been particularly associated with “causes” as opposed to “projects.” It has become a go-to —and very visible—source of raising extra money for people stricken with particularly ill fortune, whether it’s a medical problem, lost job, natural disaster, or otherwise. But its prevalence has a disturbing aspect, because while certain individuals with a particularly attractive, appealing, or heartrending story tend to raise large sums of money, often with outsize publicity to match, the truth is that most GoFundMe pages fall woefully short of their goals.
The other problems with GoFundMe sites are more inherent: By their nature, they invite donations based on shared values or concerns, and this can create a result where their success or failure skews along racial or class lines. But most of all, they tend to paper over the real “cracks” that American society has allowed to fester. By gradually becoming a legitimate, almost “acceptable” substitute for health care coverage, for example, they’ve provided a type of cover for the grotesque inequities of a dysfunctional system. In fact, one out of every three GoFundMe pages attempts to compensate for excessive health care costs. As Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker last June, the platform both exposes and maintains the status quo.
The risk in giving medical aid on the basis of stories is that the theatre of change trumps actual systemic reform; the guy with resources helps an ailing friend, or donates to a stranger whose experiences resonate, and believes that he’s done his part. Meanwhile, the causes of problems go untouched.
The following is from this week’s The Onion, but it might very well be a promise of what we can expect.
BALTIMORE—Warning that the nation was unprepared to deal with the fallout of the global pandemic, researchers from Johns Hopkins University told reporters Friday they worried that Covid-19 would overwhelm America’s GoFundMe system. “GoFundMe is the bedrock of the American healthcare system, and as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rapidly spread, we fear the servers just won’t be able to take it,” said research director Dr. Monica White, who stressed that if the pandemic were to grow any worse, there simply would not be enough $5 and $10 donations from sympathetic strangers to go around.
“…We recommend that if anyone is suffering from minor financial strife such a medical debt from the cost of insulin or cancer treatment, you defer to those diagnosed with Covid-19.”
The Onion was trying to be funny, but there is more than a kernel of truth there. There are soon going to be hundreds of thousands of people in this country (at a minimum) requiring medical care as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those people—even some of the ones who are insured—are not going to be able to afford their medical bills. We’re not going to be able to “GoFundMe” our way out of that. Not in a million years.
But that email I got—and more that are sure to follow—highlights the fact that it’s not just going to be medical care that’s a problem. We are looking at people out of work, potentially for months on end. We’re looking at small children being home for months as well as requiring care from at least one parent who will, as a result, be unable to work, even if his or her workplace is open for business. Unemployment insurance may tide over some of those people for a short period, but it’s not going to tide over those who work part-time, for example, or those who make do in the much-vaunted “gig economy.” These people don’t get “severance pay,” and most of them don’t have enough in savings to tide them over for even three months. Like all of those workers in that small music club, desperately hoping for GoFundMe donations, those folks are going to be on their own.
That’s a huge problem that we have to face up to as a nation, and we need to face up to it fast. To avoid people being literally thrown out on the streets, we’re going to need more than “paid sick leave,” or “free testing,” or even the $2 billion in unemployment insurance now ready to be provided to the states. Fifteen million Americans work in the tourism, hospitality, and restaurant fields alone, many of them part-time. With millions of workers potentially idled for months, $2 billion isn’t going to come close to getting the job done. Worse, our capitalist system depends on people buying things and if people have no money, they don’t buy things, just adding to more job losses. That’s called a recession, and we’re already in one.
For decades we’ve allowed these cracks in our health care and employment practices to be papered over by happy talk about “tax cuts” and “side hustles,” and, in the last decade, by GoFundMe pages which were symptomatic of the rot and inequities in those systems. Those who profited from this the most have been all too happy to let us degenerate into a “GoFundMe” nation, dependent on the fickle charity of others while ignoring the corporations and their collaborators in government who were busy profiting from the system as it stands. Now those cracks are being revealed as gaping fissures, suddenly about to swallow millions of Americans whole.
If this global crisis continues the way it is heading, we are going to require a comprehensive, Marshall Plan-sized effort—the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the 1930s—just to pull us out of the hole. It’s going to probably mean drastic infusions of spending and some equally drastic cuts to our defense budget, which has somehow managed to stay bloated for decades. It’s going to require a wholesale reimagining of the role of government that is going to be some very painful medicine for many in our political class.
America is going to have a big choice on its hands over the next few months, and God help those who try to stand in the way. The American people are going to demand it, because their lives are the ones on the line.
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