No amount of GoFundMe campaigns will solve inequality and meet the needs of all people.
Credit: George Danby / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist and the assistant managing editor for diversity, inclusion and staff development at the Seattle Times.

This time of year, we find ourselves touched by the generosity, grace and kindness of people helping people.

Extending ourselves to others reveals the best of who we are as humans, and that emerges so clearly during the holiday season.

Yet as moved as I often am by the ways people show up for each other, there’s always a nagging feeling that in many cases we are going about this the wrong way.

Sure, there will always be a need for people to support one another. Checking on an older neighbor, supporting a new parent, bringing food for friends who are recovering from surgery. It’s those personal connections more than anything that knit us together as a community and human family — it’s beautiful.

But increasingly it seems we are relying on each other for much more than that.

Even before COVID-19 made the frailty of our social safety net even clearer, Americans have relied on each other for things that other high-income countries like ours count on the government to provide. In the absence of poverty-preventing measures such as universal health care or universal basic income, people — especially lower-income people — have become more vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy or a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Consequently, in the U.S., individuals are being asked to fill the gaps for each other.

The use of individual fundraising to support basic needs has exploded in recent years, as online platforms such as GoFundMe have made it easier to reach potential donors from anywhere and the pandemic has resulted in lost jobs, health and lives. In addition to tools like GoFundMe, individuals now can share their Venmo links and have people donate to them directly for mutual aid.

In the first half of 2020 alone, researchers found 175,000 GoFundMe campaigns were launched. Unsurprisingly, they found the success or failure of campaigns mirrored larger social and economic inequalities. More than 40 percent of fundraisers they looked at received no support at all. The most successful campaigns were among people with the highest educational and income levels, not the ones with the greatest need.

Since these GoFundMe campaigns are by nature fueled by social networks, often the folks with the least resources are fundraising from others with scarce resources as well. Those with more resources don’t know about or see the dire needs of people they don’t know and who are not in their social circle.

A look at the active Seattle-area GoFundMe campaigns reveals our country’s dirty little open secret: a huge chunk of fundraisers are for medical expenses or related medical needs. And the word you see over and over? Cancer.

One study found that 42 percent of people with cancer depleted their assets within two years.

In 2019, the CEO of GoFundMe, Tim Cadogan, said a third of the fundraisers on their site were to pay for medical costs. The following year the platform created a category covering rent, food and bills.

In 2021, arguing for federal pandemic relief, Cardogan said himself this is not what GoFundMe should exist to do. “[O]ur 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,” he wrote.

Also, the dynamics of this kind of fundraising rewards certain types of needs over others. While physical health issues are seen as sympathetic causes, you don’t see a lot of fundraisers for substance-use disorders or mental illness.

Individual acts of charity will not result in a society that meets the needs of all. The unwillingness to accept this reminds me of the famous saying by Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Washington state is described so often as a deep-blue state with socially progressive values, but we are paradoxically the state with the most regressive tax code in the country, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Our lack of a progressive income tax and reliance on sales tax for revenue means that the poorest residents pay six times the tax rate as a share of their income compared with the richest, according to reporting by my colleague Jim Brunner.

Some help is on the way in the form of a state low-income “working families” tax rebate to go into effect in 2023. The rebate will potentially help more than 400,000 people, but it will only work if people know it’s there and know how to use it.

With the next legislative session coming up next week, we have another opportunity to explore ways to make our tax system — and therefore our safety net — more humane and just. While progressive revenue conversations have been fiercely debated as long as I can remember, perhaps now that the pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are we might finally see traction.

I know I will hear from readers who say that people should just take “personal responsibility” and pull themselves up by their bootstraps versus changing the system so it protects more people from falling through the cracks. But all it takes is one cancer diagnosis, for example, for any of us to fall through.

My hope is that next year, instead of just celebrating a season of giving, we create a culture of care, where we can spend more time relying on each other to build community versus filling each others’ basic needs.