While politicians debate whether sending a thousand bucks to people who have lost jobs, homes, loved ones, and health insurance to an economic crisis and a still very active pandemic counts as a “handout” to freeloaders, the people themselves have decided to share their resources with those who need it. This year, Americans, many of us having no idea if we were next to lose our jobs or what changes the future might hold, gave generously to help feed, bail out of jail, and heal strangers across the country.
In a time of shockingly selfish behavior – and here I mostly mean Mitch McConnell interfering with a stimulus deal and figures like Nancy Pelosi playing politics instead of moving to provide relief for people who are struggling – many people showed that they do actually care for one another and want to make sure their fellow human beings are as safe and secure as possible.
Millions of dollars flooded into mutual aid funds and bail funds and social justice nonprofits and food pantries even as the combination of protests against police violence and the rise in unemployment left people vulnerable and stretched thin financially. Community bail funds, which help people avoid spending sometimes months in jail awaiting trial by helping to pay their cash bail, reported record-breaking donations this year. Other mutual aid networks, set up to help people pay for food, rent, and medicine, also reported a flood of donations and attention.
Mutual aid funds have been around for ages – the name is somewhat new to a lot of people, but it is essentially just a community pooling resources so those in the greatest need have access to the funds they require. Rather than relying on a traditional nonprofit structure, where your donations go toward funding specific programs developed by experts but will also be used to pay for the salaries of the employees of the charity, people in need are able to appeal directly for funds and receive money based on need and circumstance. Once the beneficiaries are back on their feet, they can replenish the fund if they choose to do so, but it is not required. It’s a system that operates based on trust, on all sides.
We should acknowledge and encourage this desire to help out strangers in need
Maybe it goes without saying that mutual aid funds should not have to exist, but we are living through a crisis of leadership and authority. Pelosi claims the Democrats are “feeding” the people hit the hardest by the pandemic; meanwhile more families than ever are reliant on charities like food banks to keep themselves from going hungry. Politicians such as California governor Gavin Newsom issue strict lockdown orders to control the spread of the coronavirus, but are then caught breaking those rules with a night out at an expensive restaurant or issuing “stay at home” orders from their vacation homes. No other country has had such an inept, or dangerous, response to the pandemic, leaving people physically and economically troubled. We should be able to trust that our politicians and leaders will support us during this time of unprecedented disaster. But they didn’t, so we had only ourselves to rely on.
Of course, with all of the money swirling around, not all of it has been put to good use. Given the financial irregularities that plagued the Women’s March organization after its moment in the sun, it is not much of a surprise that some figures and organizations associated with Black Lives Matter have not proven entirely up front or prudent about what they’re doing with the money coming in. Shaun King, for example, has been criticized for years now for raising money by associating himself with civil rights causes and then coming up short when accounting for how that money was spent. People and companies donated millions of dollars to the wrong Black Lives Matter Foundation, out of an earnest desire to do good. There is little to no accountability for a lot of GoFundMes and other personal attempts to raise funds, meaning it is difficult to know if need is real or verify that funds are used for what they claim.
Organizations attracting large amounts of donations should always be held to scrutiny. But we should acknowledge and encourage this desire to help out strangers in need. Until the political class of this country takes real responsibility for our social welfare, we’re all we’ve got.