Last fall, a Chicago native named Joel Cervantes stopped his car to snap a photograph of an elderly man shuffling down the sidewalk with his popsicle cart. Apparently so moved by the frail 89-year-old, later known to much of the internet as “Fidencio the paleta man,” and his inability to gracefully retire, Cervantes paid the man $50 for a handful of sweets and posted the image to Facebook. The photograph inspired a viral combination of admiration and pity. Over the next few days Cervantes set up a GoFundMe campaign for Fidencio and his wife that would become the highest grossing in Illinois history. On the crowdfunding website’s blog, the story is highlighted along with a reminder: “You could be someone’s hero, too.”
Like many of the so-called “personal” campaigns that fill crowdfunding sites like Indigogo and GoFundMe, the plight of the paleta man could have been considered both a bout of poor luck and a side-effect of political choices. Naturally, the framing that won was the former: Madly popular crowdfunding campaigns tend to be willfully ignorant of the forces that actually affect people's lives—if they weren’t, their capacity to inspire hope would be significantly diminished.
So no word was ever given, though it was often asked in the comments, whether Fidecio was on Social Security or Medicaid. And luckily for Fidecio, he was granted his novelty check for more than $300,000 right before 2017, the first days of which saw the House begin to dismantle Obamacare and move forebodingly in the direction of services for the elderly, as well.
The GOP hasn’t figured out what exactly it will replace Obamacare with, but one of the right’s theories about dismantling social welfare suggests local communities should pick up some of that slack. The religious right in particular loves the idea that God-fearing communities could do what big government can't: When I visited Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University last year, I met a softspoken 20-something who was dedicating his life to replacing government aid with service in the name of Christ.
On a more secular level the mandate is simply to take care of your own, and GoFundMe could be a microcosmic line into that way of thinking, like a flyer on a church bulletin board advertising a fundraiser for grandma’s heart transplant. And in fact, as proprietors of some of these websites told the Los Angeles Times last year, there’s been a recent spike in the number of Americans looking to such crowdfunding platforms for help with medical bills.
Launched six years ago as a cause-driven alternative to Kickstarter’s infinite scroll of startups and whimsical renderings of useless things, GoFundMe has fewer restrictions on who can fundraise and why than almost any other site of its kind. It claims to be apolitical, though such a stance is impossible: A few years ago it banned all “abortion-related content,” though one can still find fundraisers for pro-choice groups as well as slush funds set up by concerned friends and family members who think that, if they get together enough cash, their troubled loved one will decide to “keep the baby.”
It’s also political insofar as it is impossible to spend much time browsing GoFundMe without wondering about the sheer uselessness of our already thin social safety net. Make it through the landing page's inspiring stories of familial resilience and the toddlers with terminal cancer and you’ll find an infinite scroll of indebted individuals trying to scrape together some cash for medical bills and funeral services and to feed their kids. Which, in a country in which more than two-thirds of adults say they have less than $1,000 saved up for an emergency, does make sense. But perhaps it’s worth taking a quick tour as we face the dismantling of our small federal health care system.
In Kentucky, where Governor Matt Brevin has campaigned since his election to dismantle Obamacare and freeze Medicaid, a man named Jason attempts and fails to raise money for medical bills (and for his four children) after being injured in a mining accident. The wife of a another guy, confined to a hospital bed, writes: “I was a little hesitant to start this campaign because my husband and I have always managed to make way for our family.”
Many of the pages start like that, with apologies and platitudes—we’re not the kind of people who usually need to ask for help, they say. In the same state, Marcus’s friend has raised $85 for the multiple surgeries he will need once he returns home from the burn unit. A baby named Sadie was born prematurely and needed $250,000 worth of surgeries, only half of which were covered by insurance.
Those are just a handful from a single state.
As a counterpoint to the photogenic paleta man, we could look at David in North Carolina, whose retirement did not come by being handed a crowdfunded check. David’s campaign was shared 250 times, crowdfunding a little over $1,000 with the page his son set up—a page that son would then use, in weekly missives, to express the frustration of dealing with aging parents and the “audacity” of the “inept” VA. He would write, once his father died, of the pain of a parent passing on.
The father in question, a Vietnam veteran, was dying from complications of being exposed to Agent Orange, his son claimed, after being misdiagnosed several times. His aging mother needed somewhere to live and the house was about to go underwater. Neither had much savings. The last update was 18 months ago.
The work accidents and emergency surgeries and unclear diagnoses go on, many funded anywhere between $5 and $200, well under their goal, sandwiched between requests for money for funerals and to rebuild after fires. And these pleas for help with medical costs are happening under Obamacare, a system that prohibits denial of coverage because of preexisting conditions, that has expanded Medicaid, that covers children under 26. When the process that started yesterday actually begins to gut this and other social services, we’ll likely see many more.