TOP
Go Fund Yourself: Crowdfunding is Now an Essential Part of America’s Safety Net

Go Fund Yourself: Crowdfunding is Now an Essential Part of America’s Safety Net

 

For years, Annie Hanshew has wanted things to change in her hometown of Helena, Montana – she even ran for the local school board. But her activism came to a head when she found out in April that a collection agency planned to squeeze more than $100,000 from families who hadn’t paid for school meals, Hanshew, 36, felt she had to take strong action, especially after she discovered, to her horror, that school district officials hadn’t been tracking which student debtors actually qualified for either free or reduced lunch: she knew that this move would further burden area low-income families.

In the past, a local activist like Hanshew might have simply called their school board or complained to an elected official and Hanshew and other people did do the latter. But these are dark times, filled with distrust for efficacy of the established order. So Hanshew then reached for the authority many Americans have resorted to as of late when confronted by an emergency or a personal tragedy: GoFundMe.

Her GoFundMe campaign has so far earned $4,545 out of Hanshew’s $100,000 ask.

Hanshew chose the platform for a reason: citizens in Seattle and Fargo had already used it to raise money for school lunches in their community. There are also dozens of school lunch-specific campaigns on the site, so that kids with unpaid meal accounts are not “lunch shamed” in places like Richmond, Texas. Indeed, since GoFundMe started in 2010, there have been tens of thousands of campaigns to support K-12 teachers: a press release from the company in 2017 estimated that its platform raised $33.8m to pay for school room basics.

Crowdfunding companies like GoFundMe are in themselves not evil. But the fact that we have to rely on them to pay for our basics is. That schools and their defenders need to raise money for things like lunches is an outrage. People have paid their taxes. Why were these meals not simply provided gratis to kids from struggling families?

Here’s why. Our social fabric is sundered. GoFundMe and the other crowdfunding sites that have proliferated since 2010 are an example of what has sprung up in its place, what I have called America’s dystopian social net. That is, we now require private solutions to what are public problems.

Hanshew chose the platform for a reason: citizens in Seattle and Fargo had already used it to raise money for school lunches in their community. There are also dozens of school lunch-specific campaigns on the site, so that kids with unpaid meal accounts are not “lunch shamed” in places like Richmond, Texas. Indeed, since GoFundMe started in 2010, there have been tens of thousands of campaigns to support K-12 teachers: a press release from the company in 2017 estimated that its platform raised $33.8m to pay for school room basics.

Crowdfunding companies like GoFundMe are in themselves not evil. But the fact that we have to rely on them to pay for our basics is. That schools and their defenders need to raise money for things like lunches is an outrage. People have paid their taxes. Why were these meals not simply provided gratis to kids from struggling families?

Here’s why. Our social fabric is sundered. GoFundMe and the other crowdfunding sites that have proliferated since 2010 are an example of what has sprung up in its place, what I have called America’s dystopian social net. That is, we now require private solutions to what are public problems.

Even the lucky campaigns tend to point out societal gaps and prejudices, too.

As Hanshew sees it: “In a perfect world, kids would just get meals without means testing. It’s never going to happen in Montana and the fact that we have to fundraise to make up the difference is bad, but I am so used to this reality that I can’t imagine change.”

The Helena public schools ultimately decided, at least partially due to the pushback from the community and the public GoFundMe campaign, to forgive the lunch debt of families that have demonstrated eligibility for free lunches. Of course, that still didn’t cover the children of working-class families whose kids were free lunch ineligible yet struggled to pay for the meals.

Meanwhile, Hanshew has also come to recognize that GoFundMe, while a great outlet for her and others in the community, hasn’t been the most effective tool due to the fees – the crowdfunding site has been taking money off the top of her campaign’s donations and they aren’t tax deductible. For this reason, Hanshew is looking into a new way to cover school lunch debt. It’s – what else – founding, with teacher Romano, her own non-profit.

 

Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of five books.

Co-published with The Guardian.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of the poetry collection Thoughts and Prayers and the nonfiction book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.

Skip to content