We Are Now The United States Of GoFundMe

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
GoFundMe is known for adapting the age-old concept of fundraising to the social media era — through its service, you can share your fundraiser to all the major social media platforms, upping your chances of going viral on the internet, which in turn increases the amount of money you receive as well as the speed at which you can receive it. GoFundMe allows people to raise money for a variety of reasons, like memorial services, expenses associated with disasters or accidents, legal defense costs, and perhaps most famously, medical fees. In 2019, a third of GoFundMe fundraisers in the U.S. were created for medical costs.
But yesterday, the company announced the creation of a new category: one for rent, food, or bills. You can now tag your fundraiser in this category, and when donors click on the category page, they'll be able to browse just the GoFundMes that ask for assistance with living expenses.
"Each day, Americans are forced to make the choice between paying rent & having running water, or buying food & keeping the lights on," GoFundMe wrote in a tweet. "It's more common than you'd think — 50 million households struggle to afford these expenses every single month."
It reflects the reality of austerity that has been made even more extreme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tens of millions continue to receive unemployment benefits as jobs remain scarce. An analysis by the Aspen Institute in August estimated that around 30-40 million Americans were at risk of eviction, based on their ability to pay rent in recent months and their reported confidence in being able to afford it next month. According to a recent Census Bureau survey, 10.3% of American adults reported they "sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the last seven days." That's roughly 23 million people. A Yale study calculated that, since May, an additional 8 million people had fallen into poverty.
"We've seen an unprecedented outpouring of support for people who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and now run the very real risk of not being able to afford basic household expenses," a GoFundMe spokesperson told Refinery29 over email. "The new Rent, Food & Monthly Bills category makes it easy for people to give and get help for this urgent need. The GoFundMe Basic Necessities Cause connects donations with individuals who need immediate help to cover essential costs along with charities working to provide long term relief. Collectively, GoFundMe and our community can make a difference and eliminate the choice between basic daily needs for people across the country."
GoFundMe says that over $100 million has been raised through its platform in 2020 to cover living expenses such as rent and food. In the spring, when the pandemic began spiraling out of control in the U.S., about a third of new GoFundMe fundraisers were related to COVID-19. Between the start of March and end of August, people across the world raised over $625 million through GoFundMe. In the U.S. alone, approximately 60% of campaigns during this period went toward small businesses or unemployment funds
The public reaction to the platform's latest announcement is best summed up as, "That's nice, but what the hell is wrong with us?" While it's important that GoFundMe is serving as a way for Americans unable to make ends meet to receive quick emergency assistance, the service highlights exactly how vulnerable Americans are not being served by their nation.
Instead of our elected leaders passing another COVID-19 relief stimulus bill, boosting unemployment benefits because regular state unemployment rarely pays enough to live on, or enacting robust rent relief, such as rent cancellation as well as moratoriums that are better enforced, ordinary people who are neither lawmakers nor billionaires are passing money around in a virtual hat.
Looking at the state of our social safety nets, you'd think the average American (and not just the Donald Trumps of the world) doesn't pay taxes at all. Only about 8% of our federal tax dollars go toward non-healthcare social safety net programs. SNAP benefits were inadequate enough already, but the Trump administration recently tried to slash benefits for almost 700,000 people who had lost their jobs. In contrast, about 16% of federal taxes are spent on defense. How did we get here? Are we even a country at all, or just a hodgepodge of individuals staring at their bootstraps? How uncivilized.
The crystallization of GoFundMe's role as a means to have enough food to eat is also another example of how individual acts of kindness are often packaged for the news as feel-good stories, yet are in fact deafening sirens alerting us to how heartless our leaders are and how threadbare our social programs are. Recently, the story of an 89-year-old man who received a $12,000 tip while delivering pizzas made the rounds on social media. Many people quickly pointed out that it was not very feel-good at all, actually:
It's no surprise that so many Americans are crowdfunding away the massive failure in governance. While the single $1,200 direct stimulus payment most Americans were eligible to receive took weeks if not months to arrive, GoFundMe allows people to withdraw money from their fundraiser at any time, taking around two to five business days to deposit into their bank accounts. And some of the biggest campaigns on the platform have been unimaginably successful. The Official George Floyd Memorial Fund, for example, has received over $14.7 million in donations.
But of course, GoFundMe is not a real social safety net; it's not a system of catching people when they fall through the cracks. It's a business. In 2016, it made approximately $100 million in revenue, though since 2018 it no longer charges an automatic fee for personal campaigns. In 2015, the company was reportedly valued at $600 million.
By relying on donations instead of a real safety net, people are forced to play a social media popularity game to buy their own survival — because a successful campaign requires some way to stand out from the others. It's not enough to state the fact that you need aid, and so you deserve it; fundraisers need a way to write their story to be as sympathetic as possible. Struggling Americans have to justify their right to exist, whether on a crowdfunding platform or through a plea to a government notorious for pushing the narrative that needing economic assistance is a sign of indolence. Our political leaders may have been sending a barrage of mixed messages on another stimulus bill, but the overall message from our government seems clear: "Don't look at us. Go fund yourself."

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