A feel-good story made the rounds recently about a Florida high-school teacher named Robert Goodman and his selfless colleagues. Goodman, who was undergoing twice-weekly chemo treatments for stage III colon cancer, posted to Facebook, “I’m looking into catastrophic leave of absence by the school district but I’m short 20 days … to qualify for that.” The message was accompanied by a selfie taken in the hospital. Almost immediately, district employees gave Goodman a total of 100 days from their personal stockpiles.
Goodman’s colleagues are part of a trend, of sorts. Last month, “Good Morning America” highlighted a fashionable new baby-shower gift: donated time off for mothers whose jobs don’t provide paid maternity leave.
While these may seem like inspirational tales about human generosity, they’re both more and less than that. The stories reveal the holes in America’s safety net: When social policy fails us, social media is now the primary recourse. And the problem extends beyond healthcare or paid leave to other basic functions that our government should guarantee, but does not, creating a gap that individuals and private entities fill on an ad hoc basis.
It’s not hard to find the systemic failure behind the hashtag.
Earlier this summer, Domino’s Pizza announced that it would dispense grants to cities — up to $5,000 in up to 20 locations — to help municipalities pave over potholes and cracks in the road. The PR campaign came a few months after the Trump administration announced an “infrastructure plan” that failed to allocate any new funding for fixing crumbling roads and bridges. The Domino’s website, pavingforpizza.com, brags that it has so far filled five potholes in Burbank, among other less than impressive achievements.
Even more dystopian is the trivia game show “Paid Off,” on which contestants vie to have the network pay down their student-loan debt. It premiered last month. The cost of a college diploma continues to rise faster than wages, even as degrees have become increasingly necessary for financial stability. “The best way to address the issue is with a ridiculous game show,” quipped one network executive.
Billionaires, too, are offering to save the day when the state can’t (or won’t). SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk recently suggested he could fix the water-contamination issue in Flint, Mich. The city has struggled to stay in the national spotlight even though its residents are still drinking bottled water. Even if nothing comes of Musk’s commitment, Flint’s mayor said, “This goes to show you that Flint is of interest. Flint is important. It's good that people are still thinking about us and want to help us.”
Desperate people who can’t interest Musk in their problems may resort to crowdfunding campaigns. A third of the pages on the platform GoFundMe are for medical bills — and more than half of those campaigns were launched in states that did not expand Medicaid coverage through Obamacare. Families must figure out how to turn a health crisis into a PR campaign, and most of them will fail to hit their fundraising goal: The journal Social Science & Medicine found that more than 90% of fundraisers on the site do not. Meanwhile, Mother Jones estimated that GoFundMe’s profits are in the $200-million range.
In recent years, legislation to address problems with the safety net has stalled out or been swatted down in favor of gimmicks that put the burden on individuals.
Nebraska has a new policy, enacted in January, that allows state employees to donate their paid days off for coworkers' maternity leave; but Democratic state Sen. Sue Crawford has tried and failed to pass legislation that would ensure paid family leave for everyone in Nebraska. Against all trends, she’d like to make leave a guarantee, not a gift.
I get why vacation donation stories make the rounds with a positive frame; the individuals involved are truly generous. But they lull us into believing the libertarian fantasy that we exist in a world where companies and charities and private individuals can take the place of government. That's just not the case.
A private safety net, subject to private whims, isn’t a net at all. If you need time or money to heal from an illness, you’d better have a network of friends and colleagues who have greater access to those things than you do, and you’d better be a damn good marketer. If you want your city’s infrastructure improved, you’d better know how to pique a billionaire’s interest — or at least be willing to spray-paint some corporate logos on a few sewer covers.
It’s incumbent upon all of us — whether we’re reluctantly donating to a medical-bill fund or rolling our eyes at a corporate pothole-filling stunt — to back up our reaction to individual misfortune with a call for policy change. Because it's never just one person's sick-day deficit or crushing student-loan debt. It’s never just one city’s pockmarked roads or undrinkable water. The problems are systemic. And that means any solutions will have to be systemic, too.