Susan Arnold, a 58-year-old Uber driver in Chicago, first became acquainted with GoFundMe last year, when she helped a friend get the word out about his campaign. As with many posts on the crowdfunding website, he was appealing for donations to help with a medical issue exacerbated by external forces: The friend lived in a car and had been diagnosed with macular degeneration. Unable to find work, he was going blind.
In mid-March, it was her turn. Arnold and her 68-year-old husband, both diabetic, watched their Uber fares drop in tandem with restaurant and bar closures. They had been offering hand sanitizer to riders and wiping down their cars after every trip, but it felt inevitable that they would need to stop working soon. The thought of abruptly losing their livelihood “sent me into a panic,” says Arnold. Ten years before, following a series of more subtle but still devastating crises, the Arnolds lost everything they had. They say they are terrified of it happening again.
Remembering her friend’s GoFundMe campaign, Arnold became one of the nearly 35,000 people to crowdfund on the service for needs related to covid-19, part of a massive spike we found in the service’s posts during the month of March. When we first spoke, the Arnolds had less than $50 in their bank accounts but, thanks to the roughly $1,700 raised through the platform, were able to make April rent and pay basic bills. What they’ll do this month is the subject of some anxiety, but Arnold says “the GoFundMe is allowing us to limp along during this time.”
GoFundMe campaigns for medical issues are rarely about just the treatment. In the United States, matters of health are inseparable from the cycles of debt and disaster that attend an unexpected bill. In the ten years since GoFundMe launched, it has become the stop-gap of choice for people betrayed by their bodies and circumstances: The platform originally intended for wedding registries and charity donations said last year one-third of its users are looking to offset a healthcare cost. In early 2019, one of the company’s founders described watching his optimistic startup turn into the country’s default safety net: “Politicians are failing us,” he said at the time. “Health care companies are failing us.”
A year later, the pandemic has created many more opportunities for those institutions to fail. The federal government is lobbing symbolic checks at 30.3 million unemployed Americans and loan packages for small businesses have been immediately drained. And predictably, more people are looking to GoFundMe for help—the crisis has thrown into sharp relief the role one company plays in reinforcing a social safety net that’s been fraying for some time. For many, like the Arnolds, a makeshift survival method has become the only dependable option to pursue.
As a doctor’s visit is inextricably linked to the bills that follow it, the global covid-19 emergency is a crisis of basic material survival as much as of public health. When we analyzed 311,352 GoFundMe posts from the first three-and-a-half months of 2020, we found a service in the early stages of transforming from a medical debt clearinghouse into a community-supported bailout. People fundraising for pandemic-related reasons aren’t raising money for medical issues, by and large: They need money to shelter in place, to buy groceries, to purchase protective personal equipment, to stay alive.
An Uber driver in Tennessee is asking for donations of as little as $1.00 to help him buy food for himself and his dog. A Washington, D.C. resident is trying to raise money to pay off medical school loans for the overworked professionals on the front lines of the crisis. Hundreds of bars and restaurants are asking former patrons to pay server salaries while they wait out the lockdown. In California, a man living in his car lost his job and is asking for money to help him and his chronically ill brother safely shelter in place.
As the pandemic spread from country to country through the first months of 2020, GoFundMe says, the company watched new campaigns spike in tandem with confirmed cases, a shifting map of the economic desperation the pandemic is leaving in its wake. By March, the company says, nearly one-third of all new campaigns were related to the coronavirus; entreaties for assistance with medical bills and funeral costs are, at least anecdotally, dwarfed by basic living costs, they say. (GoFundMe disagreed with other calculations we made but did not correct our findings, telling us it was too early in the pandemic to release numbers and noting that there is some ambiguity in searching for campaign subjects by name.)
But according to our analysis, people who visited the GoFundMe site donated close to $120 million to campaigns that mentioned the pandemic between January and mid-April. To determine that number, we looked at new campaigns that mentioned words like coronavirus” and “covid-19” and added up the total amount raised so far. According to a search of those campaigns, $4 million had been raised for posts that directly mention rent or mortgage—a number that’s certainly low, as it doesn’t account for less literal asks, like fundraising for help to “stay in my place.”
As U.S. states, abandoned by the federal government, struggle to secure masks and gloves for their essential workers, we found $13.7 million has been raised on GoFundMe by average people worldwide hoping to lend their dollars to the sourcing or manufacturing of face masks and PPE. By the close of March, there were nearly 250 campaigns launched every day that invoked the coronavirus in some way—and the site as a whole experienced a seismic jump in all new fundraising efforts midway through March, as GoFundMe users set up new campaigns that may not have directly mentioned the pandemic at an alarming clip.
Representatives for GoFundMe say they’re trying to understand what’s happening on the platform in terms of the disasters that have preceded it: the hurricanes and school shootings that have sparked spikes in new campaigns. But as the company notes, “the scale is unprecedented,” and not bound by any geography. It’s possible to see all of this money spent as an exercise in generosity, an optimistic act of charity in troubling times. But according to Similar Web, nearly 70 percent of GoFundMe’s traffic since January originated in the United States. This is also a story about all the ways a specific government, facing a crisis that’s truly omnipresent, has been unable or unwilling to provide measures of meaningful support.
Susan Arnold’s husband John, who also until recently drove for Uber, slides his face mask to the side so he can speak into the phone’s receiver. “If you’re going to the hospital with cancer, is it a medical crisis, or a financial crisis? It’s both,” he says. He conceptualizes the pandemic and its fallout the same way, though the scale of this disaster, he says, as he lists every crisis of his lifetime from the Cuban missile crisis to the stock market crash, “is a million times worse.” John knows something about the cost of healthcare in this country: He worked in insurance for 35 years. A decade ago, the Arnolds lived in Florida; John worked as an independent insurance agent. A “cascading series of events” including the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the real estate bust, suctioned up their retirement savings and everything they owned. The couple moved to Chicago to start over; around 2016 they both started driving for Uber. It was nice to get out of the house. They liked the work. “And we needed the money,” Susan says.
In addition to their chronic issues, the Arnolds are of the age where covid-19 carries a higher degree of risk. They’ve been home for about two months. “We just didn’t have any choice,” Susan says. In March, the couple applied for Uber’s two-week sick pay, offered to drivers diagnosed with the virus or those with a doctor’s note mandating they stay home. Susan had to appeal her application to get the money and then fielded questions from other Uber workers asking how she had gotten the cash, it has been nearly impossible for others to secure.
When we first spoke, the Arnolds were waiting for their federal stimulus checks and the unemployment they applied for, which is how Susan thought they might be able to cover their May bills. She is desperate to keep paying, haunted by the prospect of owing months’ worth of utilities and rent all at once. A day after our interview, Susan emailed to say she had woken up to another $218 in her checking account from the GoFundMe, which was “all the money we have.” “I don’t know what we would be eating if it wasn’t for the GoFundMe,” she wrote. There had still been no word on any of the assistance promised by the state. The stimulus checks would finally arrive on May 4; at the time the Arnolds had just $3 left in their bank account.
They immediately paid rent for May and now have about $100 left. The unemployment has not yet come through. “Really,” says Susan, “the GoFundMe has gotten us through the past two months.”