GoFundMe Isn’t Going to Save Us from the Poverty Crisis

A man sits on the sidewalk with a cup in his hand as another person puts money inside.
Image Source: Timur Weber/ Pexels

For people with no safety net during a financial or personal crisis, alternative support networks can be life-saving. However, the normalizing of GoFundMe fundraising for food, rent, and medical bills on social platforms isn’t typical of a functioning country. When crowdfunding for survival supersedes government relief efforts, it reveals a public crisis in dire need of reform. 

In February of 2021, GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan called out the U.S. government for its inaction in addressing the “pandemic-related hardships” that caused many Americans to turn to the crowdfunding site to resolve. While acknowledging that fundraisers for “unexpected emergencies” are normal for the company, he said that fixing the current national crisis isn’t their “job.”

“We are proud of the role that GoFundMe plays in connecting those in need with those who are ready to help,” Cadogan wrote. “But our platform was never meant to be a source of support for basic needs, and it can never be a replacement for robust federal COVID-19 relief that is generous and targeted to help the millions of Americans who are struggling” (USAToday).

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Consider how “heartwarming” news stories often ignore the root of the problem they are highlighting.

In one week in August, approximately 10% of people in the U.S. said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat within the past week. While more than eight million households were at risk of eviction (Census Bureau).

In response to the pandemic, more than 22,000 COVID-19 related fundraisers were created, raising over $100 million for basic living expense campaigns and more than $625 million for other COVID-19-related needs in 2020 (GoFundMe). The crowdfunding site even created a new category, Food, Rent, and Monthly Bills, because of the surge in basic necessity fundraisers. 

While the pandemic exacerbated the number of basic needs fundraising, issues relating to rent assistance and evictions, medical expenses, and access to food aren’t the result of COVID-19. In 2019, 38 million people were already unable to or unsure about their ability to acquire enough food due to insufficient money (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 

Also, 137 million people in the U.S. struggled with medical debt (Journal of General Internal Medicine). Medical cost campaigns, a common category across most crowdfunding sites (Kaiser Health News), represented one-third of GoFundMe’s donations for 2019 (Time). And when we consider that 59% of people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck (Modern Wealth Survey), it’s hard to ignore that most of the population is one emergency away from a financial crisis.

Crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter allow people to raise money for various reasons ranging from starting a new business to launching a new project. Sites like Fundly, MyCause, and GoFundMe have pivoted from this format by encouraging more personal campaigns like gender-affirming surgery or rent assistance. 

Although these sites provide a lifeline for desperate individuals, they rely heavily on community sympathy. So struggling folks end up playing “trauma Olympics” to see who gets to pay their rent this month. For those trying to get medical expenses covered, GoFundMe suggests individuals detail the “financial, physical, and emotional” problems they’re facing with photos and videos to gain sympathy and support for their cause (GoFundMe). But having an unsuccessful campaign doesn’t make a person’s cause any less worthy than a “profitable” one, and is why crowdfunding platforms could never be a substitute for sustainable safety nets.

And repackaging systemic failures as feel-good human interest stories takes the onus off the government to provide solutions. A teen with a life-threatening blood disorder using their MakeAWish gift to feed unhoused people for a year (CNN), people raising $7.5 million for Native people to have food and water during the pandemic (Newsweek), or teachers donating their paid sick days to a colleague with cancer (CNN), although honorable, is anything but heartwarming. It’s not the role of one’s community to be the first and often the only line of defense from economic hardship.

Substantial relief packages like $2,000 stimulus checks (Newsweek), extensions on unemployment and rent moratoriums (USA Today) (New York Times), and a raise in the minimum wage (Business Insider) were potential lifesavers that were either stalled by partisan politics or empty campaign promises. But as politicians attempt to reach a bipartisan compromise on basic human rights, vulnerable people are still being crushed by a system that has left them behind.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • People have been forced to rely on basic needs fundraising because the U.S. government has failed to address the current public crisis. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted major gaps in the country’s social safety nets. 
  • Crowdfunding sites should not be our first line of defense regarding the nation’s economic and social failures.

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