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GoFundMe is a poor substitute for America’s tattered social safety net

Patients begging for chemotherapy money on GoFundMe is a sign our society is sick
Damar Hamlin makes a heart-shaped-gesture with his hands
Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills before a game against the Dolphins in Miami on Jan. 7. GoFundMe says that Jan. 2, 2023, was its "most generous day" that year, driven by people donating to Hamlin's fundraiser for toys after he collapsed in a nationally televised game.Perry Knotts / Getty Images

The crowdfunding platform GoFundMe announced this week that it had hit a milestone: raising $30 billion since its founding in 2010. “This is a testament to the tremendous impact that comes from people asking and offering help,” CEO Tim Cadogan said in a news release.

That’s up from $9 billion in 2019, something that can be attributed to everything from increased public awareness to acquisitions that include the nonprofit platform fundraiser Classy. Yay for GoFundMe! We want to be helpful to people in need, and the site offered up another way for us to do so. But GoFundMe is also evidence of an enormous societal failure. Its virtual begging tin comes with enormous side effects. Not only does it allow us to ignore the gaping holes in our social safety net, but it permits us to feel as if we’re a generous nation while we are ignoring those holes.

GoFundMe is evidence of an enormous societal failure. Its virtual begging tin can comes with enormous side effects.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Americans like to congratulate themselves on the fact that they give more to charity than other nations, but GoFundMe’s success is directly attributable to our refusal as a nation to grapple with why so many Americans are having trouble paying for everything from children’s cancer treatments to school lunches.

Even as we click “Donate Now” on something like “Let’s Kick Claudia’s Colon Cancer in the Butt,” we are sticking our fingers in a dike of overwhelming need. Take medical care, something the company acknowledges is the largest category on its site. In the United States alone, we spent $471 billion on out-of-pocket medical expenses in 2022, the last year figures are available.

According to a poll released late last year by KFF, 1 in 4 Americans say they or a family member experienced difficulty recently paying for needed medical care, while 20 % say they didn’t fill a prescription because it cost more than they could comfortably afford. That’s hardly a surprise. Prescriptions drugs cost many times more in the United States than they do in other countries.  On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pointed out at a Senate hearing that Keytruda, a cancer drug, costs $191,000 a year in the U.S. and $44,000 in Japan, which goes a long way toward explaining his finding that there are hundreds of requests to help pay for the drug on GoFundMe. 

That $30 billion GoFundMe is trumpeting — over the course of its entire existence, for all kinds of needs — is less than 10% of that 2022 out-of-pocket total. It is, at best, putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.

The United States has a long tradition of taking heartbreaking stories and making them heartwarming.  For example, people donating sick days to an ill colleague is virtually a staple of feel-good local TV news. Our refusal to give in to despair, to admit we are victims of circumstances is admirable. It’s also self-defeating.  

Putting up a fundraiser on GoFundMe so a parent can take time off work to spend it with a sick child does not even begin to compensate for the fact the United States remains, even post Covid, the only developed nation lacking a national paid sick leave or family leave policy. Seeing pleas to help pay off student lunch debt should be a reminder that the United States made such meals free to all regardless of income during the pandemic — and could choose to do so again. Fundraising for people who are suddenly downsized reduces pressure to reform our unemployment system, which offers a financial replacement rate well below that of our peer countries.

A mere 12% of people seeking medical care received the amount of funds they sought.

At the same time, GoFundMe replicates the broad divides in our country. Charity, as the old saw goes, begins at home. A recently released working paper studying campaigns to help victims of a 2021 wildfire found that campaigns run on behalf of wealthier recipients did better than others, possibly because the more monied we are, the more likely we are to possess friends with money who can offer more of a helping hand. Other studies echo the findings. Campaigns for people of color do less well than those run for white people. According to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2020, appeals originating in areas with higher medical debt and lower incomes raised less money than those in more financially flush neighborhoods. The same study determined a mere 12% of people seeking medical care received the amount of funds they sought.

And then there’s this: In a society where it can feel like everything is for sale, we are asking people to market themselves and make themselves appear both appealing and worthy in their greatest time of woe. The GoFundMe blog offers up tips on how to “use psychology to boost your fundraiser,” adding helpful hints like, “Give as many details about yourself or the beneficiary as possible, to help donors feel emotionally invested.” It’s helpful advice, but it’s also selling tragedy.

To be clear, the blame here doesn’t accrue to GoFundMe and crowdfunding platforms like it, which simply saw a business opportunity in offering help to people confronted with the large gaps in our social and economic safety net. (The founder of GiveForward, a rival medical crowdfunding site subsequently acquired by a company that was then taken over by GoFundMe, once explained his business model to a group of business students by saying, “Our health care system is s--- and it’s trending s----ier.”) It’s our society that insists we can market and fundraise our way out of the financial repercussions of tragedy that’s at fault.

If all this doesn’t make you feel queasy, it should. Charity is a good thing, and a world will never exist where there isn’t a role for it. But voluntary donations can’t make up for a government and economic system that leave so many behind when trouble arises. The quicker we admit that fact, the better off we will all be.