Unemployment has devastated the American workforce and left millions without financial recourse. While other countries have provided their citizens with pandemic welfare programs and workforce subsidies, the United States has consistently trailed behind. With only one round of stimulus checks sent out and future Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in limbo, Americans have been left holding their breath waiting for relief. Many have turned to crowdsourcing funds to make up for the obvious lack in pandemic welfare programs and overall leadership regarding unemployment benefits. GoFundMe, crowdfunding platform du jour, is quickly proving itself to be a pandemic survival necessity. For those who have fallen through the cracks of meager government assistance, sourcing funds from strangers online is proving to be the most viable option.
As an online fundraising platform, GoFundMe has shown itself to be a vital pandemic survival resource. Utilizing a crowdfunding model, in which small amounts are donated by many to reach the organizer’s goal, GoFundMe is offering real solutions in the face of government apathy. A simple scroll through Twitter reveals the massive cultural impact of crowdfunding. GoFundMe is everywhere, but this trend didn’t spontaneously arise. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to bailing out those who cannot afford it, raised over $30 million in donations due to social-media activists promoting their cause. The success of this fund set a strong precedent for crowdfunding during crisis and supported a growing movement toward community organization. Nationwide conversations around defunding police budgets quickly evolved to financial advocacy for those struggling in the wake of COVID-19’s economic destruction. Rooted in an authentic desire to effect change, GoFundMe fundraisers began receiving massive social-media boosts by the thousands. The same strategies used for the Minnesota Freedom Fund proved to be scalable and provided resources to fill the gaps of government neglect.
Lack of financial resources to combat COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. economy is not entirely the fault of state and federal governments. Typically, in natural or financial crises, there are warning signs leading up to a devastating event that allow for government preparation. For example, meteorologists project the damage done by a hurricane, and evacuation measures are put into place to protect the largest number of people. The same standards apply to economic devastation, whereby state and federal governments forecast unemployment rates due to impending recessions and depressions and staff their unemployment offices accordingly. COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. economy could not have been predicted, and claims coming in by the millions—weekly—overloaded our unemployment benefits system.
For context, the unemployment rate in February was 3.8%. By April, the rate had nearly quadrupled to 14.7%, or 20.5 million unemployed Americans. Various countries the world over saw the writing on the wall and began budgeting for businesses and employees to soften the blow. Denmark and the Netherlands paid up to 90% of workers’ salaries as long as companies kept them employed, with the United Kingdom covering about 80%, allowing for companies to rehire employees who were laid off. For independent contractors with unsteady employment, countries like Germany and France provided grants that were praised for their quick delivery and ease of access. In Asia, most major countries partially subsidized their entire workforce’s income. In comparison, one round of $1,200 stimulus checks and a college semester’s worth of $600/week in additional unemployment assistance from the U.S. government seems inappropriate. When factoring in other wealthy countries’ universal health care and social welfare initiatives relating to food and housing, U.S. aid did very little to address the long-term financial burden of the pandemic on its residents. Without pandemic welfare systems to turn to, many Americans began looking to each other.
“Solidarity,” “community,” and “redistribution” are buzzwords-turned-actions currently fueling the U.S. crowdfunding craze. Government assistance failed to scale to individual family needs, pre-existing medical costs, and general instability (especially for low-income workers). Conversations around wage and wealth inequality coincided with those of social injustice, and there was a notable shift in public response to crowdfunding. Prior to the pandemic, there was notable resentment projected onto GoFundMe campaigns for most anything outside of health care. Reddit is flooded with negative feedback for fundraisers dedicated to basic survival or small upgrades to a person’s living situation. Quite simply, GoFundMe was largely equated to begging, and begging triggered a classist reaction of resentment toward the poor. Asking for financial help (pre–COVID-19) forced one’s community to reflect on their own financial precarity, either resulting in donation or resentment. In a post-pandemic world, the fear of financial destruction isn’t hidden, and the indifference of government to everyday American survival (on multiple fronts) has engendered widespread empathy and sympathy. Small donations across various fundraisers have become a popular form of goodwill, providing donors with the satisfaction of directly stepping in where government has failed. This has created a positive feedback loop of fundraiser-donation-success, significantly altering the content and promotion of current and future fundraisers.
Before it became cool to help others, many fundraising pitches were centered around the individual’s commitment to their own goal. Phrases like, “I’ve already raised ($ amount) toward my goal,” or, “I will be matching every ($ amount) milestone toward my goal” were trendy, and campaigns with this language often received the most community support.
The influence of social-media activism has dramatically reformatted the pitch formula. Now, the taglines to many successful fundraisers are filled with buzzwords found in social-justice dialogue, aiding in their going viral on Twitter and attention-grabbing on Instagram. Gone are the days of modestly (slowly) gathering donations; people are unapologetically asking for what they need—and seeing immediate results. Crowdfunding descriptions have adjusted to detailing losses, traumatic events, and certain peril without assistance, replacing past trends of optimistic requests for donations. In many ways, the current crowdfunding landscape is more honest in its depiction of need, with or without pandemic influence. Organizations like G.L.I.T.S. (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society) have been able to raise millions for their causes using the crowdfunding model, a success comparable to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. While witnessing these major wins for public welfare is heartening, they also highlight the inadequacy of government intervention.
GoFundMe’s replacement of welfare programs and systemic support for many U.S. residents was not the intended use of the platform. When asked in 2019 about the use of crowdfunding for lifesaving medical procedures, former GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon went as far as to say, “We provide relief for a lot of people. But there are people who are not getting relief from us or from the institutions that are supposed to be there. We shouldn’t be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems. They should be solved by the government working properly.”
What’s most disappointing about the government’s fumbled pandemic response is that a precedent has already been set on how to respond to an economic collapse. In the mid-1930s during the Great Depression, when everyone was starving and broke, President Franklin D. Roosevelt taxed the rich at a rate of about 75%, giving the government the necessary funding to create millions of government jobs and support welfare programs like Social Security. Today, a similar tax would allow for continued pandemic assistance, jobs to be created in IT and health care, and government subsidization of PPE for teachers, health care professionals, and all other essential workers. Unfortunately, we live in Hell—so it’s crowdfunding for now.