Over the Black Friday weekend, Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery saw a need on the popular education crowdfunding site DonorsChoose, where teachers request financial assistance for classroom supplies. For 22 hours, Jeffery tweeted out fundraiser after fundraiser, until her followers raised $60,000 by responding to the lone Twitter thread. They sent paper and pencils to San Francisco, books to fire evacuees in Chico, an instructor’s computer to a tribal school in South Dakota, warm weather gear to East Flatbush, and much more.
Throughout the thread, Jeffery expressed frustration that teachers’ needs were so dire. “She [is] asking for pencils and gluesticks ffs,” Jeffery commented on a fundraiser for a low-income San Francisco school. On a request for help buying laundry equipment, she said: “These asks for ways to help kids and their families get and clean clothes are so sad. We need to serious[ly] overhaul our society.”
No teacher should have to beg for help with buying pencils, but here we are. As Jeffery notes, “so many more teachers are paying for essentials out of their own, far-too-small, paychecks.”
While she was quick to put her fundraising in context, her efforts could have easily fallen prey to a media trend of stories that follow a familiar formula: A person sees an individual injustice and takes a step to remedy it, everyone gets inspired, the end.
The boss buys a car for an employee struggling with transportation issues. Coworkers donate sick days to a teacher undergoing cancer treatment so they don’t lose employment benefits. A garbage truck driver helps an elderly customer evacuate a wildfire. A LASIK surgeon donates procedures to veterans. Well-paid celebrities offer generous tips to wait staff having hard days. News station buys up, and forgives, medical debt.
Websites specializing in “good” and “uplifting” news love circulating this kind of content, but they aren’t alone, especially at this time of year, when readers and viewers are hungry for a feel-good story. But these stories should not make anyone feel good. They are stark illustrations of inequality in the United States and the reasons why it’s so pernicious. Circulating narratives like these reinforces the attitude that they are personal problems that can be solved by an act of charity, instead of institutional injustices that must be remedied through legislation.
That employee who got a car from their boss doesn’t need a one-time gift from a generous CEO: They need reliable transit and a fair wage so they can be empowered to make their own decisions about how they get to work. Meanwhile, the oil industry continues to fight transit improvements while transit systems across the country are plagued by deferred maintenance, insufficient capacity, and accessibility issues. The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 hourly for almost a decade, with states slowly working on increases.
An employee with cancer doesn’t need donated sick pay — a growing trend, along with donating paid time off to new parents so they can take leave with their newborns or recently-adopted family members. They need adequate sick leave to meet their needs, along with paid family leave to help them care for their relatives and chosen family when necessary. The United States is the only industrialized nation that lacks national paid leave requirements: Just 13 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave, the majority do not have paid medical leave, and 29 percent have no paid sick leave.
A garbage truck driver shouldn’t have to lift a 93-year-old woman into the cab of a sanitation truck and help arrange shelter at the other end of the journey. Local authorities should proactively identify residents in need of evacuation assistance and dispatch trained personnel to assist. The costs of failing to do so are high: During 2017’s Hurricane Irma, 12 Florida nursing home residents died due to inadequate disaster preparation. That same year, residents of eldercare facilities in Santa Rosa, CA were abandoned in advance of a wildfire – fortunately, the community was able to rescue them.
Waitstaff shouldn’t have to rely on random $500 tips from strangers who feel guilty about their wealth. They should be making a living wage and receiving employment benefits that allow them to access health care, paid leave, educational opportunities, and other supports. The federal tipped minimum wage has been flat since 1991 and service workers are subject to wage theft, racial inequalities, high poverty rates, and city councils and legislatures that overturn the wage increases voters asked for.
A news station shouldn’t have to buy up debt for pennies on the dollar and forgive it, passing along potentially serious tax implications. People should have access to health coverage and living wages that keep them out of debt in the first place. Medical debt is the leading cause for debt collection calls. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Nothing has to be this way.
These are systemic problems, not personal ones, and they could be better addressed through policy interventions than on a case-by-case basis. Access to things like paid leave, safe housing, transit, and health care shouldn’t be dependent on whether someone can make their story trend on Twitter or package it for a local news entity. Every time these stories are shared and re-shared, it pulls attention away from the institutional issue in favor of a highly-personal quick fix.
Individual acts of generosity like these can feel rewarding: People see a fellow human in distress and they help alleviate it, for an immediate hit of gratification (and guilt reduction, when these gifts come from people who may have contributed to the underlying problem). But they do not necessarily make a long-term meaningful difference in the recipient’s life, and they do nothing to resolve the inequities that created the situation in the first place. For every one of these happy endings, there are millions of others facing the same precarious situations with no helping hand in sight.
What happens when that employee faces car insurance and registration fees she can’t afford for the car she didn’t ask for? When that waitress receives a tax bill for her $500 tip? When that elder’s home burns, hospitality runs out, and her insurance refuses to pay out, leaving her homeless and adrift? When a teacher’s fundraising efforts for classroom cleaning supplies fail and students work in increasingly dirty conditions for the rest of the school year?
We create problems like these by putting the feelings of people who want to perform charity before the actual needs of low-income people. The consequences are the parts of the story we never see, and the illustration that far from making us feel good, these stories should make us feel very, very bad.