OPINION
08/20/2018 05:45 am ET

Why That Feel-Good News Story Should Actually Make You Feel Very Bad

Our priorities are really messed up when it's normal for people to crowdfund their cancer treatment or donate vacation days s
woolzian via Getty Images
Our priorities are really messed up when it's normal for people to crowdfund their cancer treatment or donate vacation days so a colleague can take maternity leave.

These are real headlines for real news stories ― the types of stories people share on Facebook and Twitter because they’re heartwarming and uplifting and restore their faith in humanity.

But give these stories a closer look, and they reveal much bleaker aspects of our society. We live in a country in which people cannot afford to take time off to have a baby. Or to be sick. In which parents have to declare bankruptcy or crowdfund their children’s medical treatments. In which teachers have to crowdfund classroom supplies and books. In which a teacher can work a full-time job and not be able to afford a car.

That the United States has some of the most retrograde labor policies in the developed world is not news. We are the only advanced economy that doesn’t have mandated paid maternity leave, and the most recent GOP plan ― sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) ― would make parents rely on their future Social Security funds to cover their maternity leave (thus demanding they put off retirement). Sure, you can take maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but whether you get paid during that time, even at a reduced rate, depends entirely on the kindness of your employer.

Americans are crowdsourcing lifesaving medical care and giving up their already-meager vacation time so Jane in Accounts Payable can take her maternity leave.

When it comes to sick leave, millions of Americans don’t have access to paid sick time at all, let alone enough paid sick time to manage cancer treatments or other major health problems that arise. This is particularly true for part-time workers, many of whom are not eligible for employer-sponsored health insurance and, if they are single, may not qualify for Medicaid either.

Even if people have access to adequate sick leave, they may not be able to pay for care. The CEO of GoFundMe, a popular crowdfunding website, confirmed recently that one-third of the website’s campaigns are to raise money for medical bills. And it’s not just uninsured people who are struggling to stay above water; underinsured folks, with high deductibles and often expensive coverage, are nearly as likely to have trouble paying their medical bills as those who don’t have any insurance.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this crowdfunding trend is insulin, which is vital in treating Type 1 diabetes and is hardly a new designer drug ― it was first used in the 1920s. With no generic options available to patients, the cost of insulin has risen more than 700 percent over the past two decades, averaging $250 per 10-milliliter vial, even though it costs roughly $5 per vial to produce. A Twitter search for #Insulin4All reveals endless stories of rationing, inflation and debt, and thousands of campaigns to help with insulin and related costs exist on crowdfunding platforms.

Something missing from all those feel-good news articles is what people do when their fundraiser fails. And the vast majority of them do fail. Researchers at the University of Washington Bothell found that an incredible 90 percent of medical crowdfunding campaigns don’t meet their goals.

Shane Patrick Boyle was part of that 90 percent, and it cost him his life. He turned to GoFundMe in 2017 to cover his insulin costs after losing his prescription drug coverage. His campaign fell short by just $50, and just weeks after it began, Boyle died from diabetes-related complications.

Give these stories a closer look, and they reveal much bleaker aspects of our society.

We see here a crucial issue not only with crowdfunding but also with donating vacation time or buying cars or school supplies for teachers: Who deserves it? Who gets our support? Our vacation time? A new car or set of Dr. Seuss for the classroom? What if you’ve already earmarked your vacation time ― bought your tickets and made your hotel reservations ― and you find out that Jim from Marketing needs a kidney transplant and can’t take time off work for the procedure?

University of Washington Bothell researchers argued that using sites like GoFundMe for medical bills may well ”deepen social and health inequities in the U.S.” because they depend on “individualized charity” that campaigners have to vie for in a competitive landscape that demands they prove their worthiness for help.

I have to agree with them. Individual charity may make us feel warm and fuzzy ― I know I feel good when I donate ― but it obscures the real issues at stake. Our priorities as a society are really messed up if we think it’s OK for people to not have affordable prescription medication. Or that it’s OK for our schools to lack basic supplies like pencils and paper. Or when a person with a degree and a salaried job cannot afford a car to get to work.

Economic growth that is measured only by stock market gains and unemployment numbers is shallow; we have to instead evaluate how we take care of our people. In many respects, Americans are richer than at any other time in our history, but both wealth equality and our priorities are skewed. While the GOP and the Trump administration pass a tax cut that benefits only the wealthy, Americans are crowdsourcing lifesaving medical care and giving up their already-meager vacation time so Jane in Accounts Payable can take her maternity leave.

Individual charity may make us feel warm and fuzzy ... but it obscures the real issues at stake.

The issue, of course, isn’t the crowdfunding itself ― by all means, if you can help someone afford a lifesaving medicine, do so, and not just because you’re touched by their story. If you can donate to a teacher’s classroom, even if it means buying extra tissues for your own child’s class, that’s a great contribution. But as the midterm elections approach, ask your candidates about their stance on health care reform, cost controls and the Affordable Care Act. Find out where they stand on the 2017 tax cut and on parental and sick leave. And more than anything, get out and vote in November.

Frankly, I’d rather have subsidized medical care and paid maternity and sick leave than spend billions of dollars on a Space Force. Maybe the Trump administration should crowdfund his new military branch instead, so the rest of us can afford basic school supplies and medications.

Julia Hudson-Richards is a food activist and historian who studies the environment, food and the people who produce it. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.

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