Every day, scores of crowdfunding campaigns sweep across my social media accounts. There are the games, the art projects, the books, the things that people want to make happen because they’re fun or interesting or do something important for the world, and I contribute to these now and then, to a project with portraits of disabled veterans or fat pride patches or a silly Kickstarter game. But there are also the more serious campaigns to raise money to help people cope with medical expenses, funerals, moving costs after eviction, needing to take time off after tragedy, and other basic life expenses. These campaigns reflect the fact that most people in the United States have no money in savings and a simple event can knock them completely off kilter, but they also illustrate the growing socioeconomic gap in this country, and the vital need to have better social supports.
The rise of crowfunding specifically to address personal problems has become such an issue that it’s now a for-profit industry, with a number of sites like YouCaring and Generosity specifically focusing on crowdfunding for ‘life issues,’ while sites like GoFundMe also have a range of personal campaigns if you pop over to their home pages — GoFundMe, incidentally, is refreshingly nondiscriminatory when it comes to having multiple campaigns to fund legal expenses for killer cops, but it’s swift to shut down funding campaigns for battered sex workers who need help paying their medical bills. The discerning tastes of their member representatives are duly noted. All of these sites take a cut for processing donations — something many small donors are not aware of when they kick $5 into a campaign and don’t know that $1 or more never even reaches the recipient.
A growing number of people cannot afford basic needs, and this is ridiculous. Take, for example, funerals, which can quickly rise over $10,000 in the United States with very little effort on the part of mourners, even when they are trying to keep a funeral simple in keeping with the wishes of the deceased, religious values, economic concerns, or some combination of these. For larger funerals, costs can bloom into $30,000 or more, including costly caskets and scrupulous accounting of every single nickel that can possibly be squeezed for profit. Funeral directors are notorious for sharking families at their most vulnerable for a reason.
Many families can’t afford a funeral even when they’re prepared for it, though life insurance and inheritance can offset costs. Chillingly, savvy funeral directors may sniff around to find out how much life insurance will be coming through in order to precisely pitch a funeral tailored to the bank account of the customer. When a death arises unexpectedly — a family member shot by police, a teen that dies in a wreck, a child dying as a result of neglect in a daycare center — it can be awful like any death, but also devastating because it was unexpected, and because a family has had no time to financially prepare. Consequently, the community around them may rally to help pay expenses.
Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for communities to pitch in with funeral costs on an organic level, as for example when friends of the family distributed tasks and quietly helped defray expenses. Today, that has transferred to the internet as well, with friends and family raising money to help with funeral costs but also expenses like money to create a buffer so people can take time off. The validity of a campaign can be difficult to verify, making it challenging to know if you’re contributing to a real cause or not, but people still feel driven to open their pocketbooks to emotional campaigns out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or knowledge that they, too, may need help some day.
Supporting these campaigns is challenging. I can’t give to everyone in need, although I wish that I could, and I also have to exercise some discretion when I evaluate campaigns to make sure they’re legitimate and money is actually going to the people the campaign names — since supportive campaigns like these are often run by friends and family, it’s not unusual for Jane Doe to run a campaign for John Smith, so that’s not a red flag, but it also doesn’t mean that John Smith or his family are getting the money. I want to signalboost them where I can, but if I distributed every single one I encountered, my feed would be a cluttered and annoying mess of requests for financial assistance from second, third, or even fourth parties — it is precisely this networked spread that results in successful campaigns, but it’s still frustrating for readers and followers to deal with.
So usually I pick one or two a month to endorse, but at the same time, I experience a deep sense of bitterness. People should not have to raise money to help pay for cancer treatment. They shouldn’t have to raise money to take more time off with a new baby. They shouldn’t have to raise money to assist with the costs of a personal assistant or home nurse. They shouldn’t have to raise money to pay for a funeral, for transition surgery, for help leaving an abusive partner, for any number of life expenses. The fact that it has become so routine as to become almost parodic to raise money because you can’t afford basic needs in life is tragic, and I hope that historians of the future look back on this era as a bizarre iteration of the charity-based model, as a brief and terrible period in time during which people were totally reliant on the kindness of others rather than making fair wages and living under governments that respected their humanity.
Image: Ronnie’s funeral, Felipe Neves, Flickr