Earlier this month, Alondra Carmona, a high school student in Houston, learned that her mother had been laid off from her job at the Port of Houston. Her mother had kept the layoff a secret from her daughters for months, not wanting to worry them, but now the family was behind on rent and facing eviction. Carmona was a senior in high school and had been admitted to Barnard College with a scholarship. Still, the financial aid wasn’t enough to cover the full cost of attending college and Carmona had saved for months to make up the difference.
Carmona approached the Barnard financial aid office, explaining the situation, but they informed her that they would not be increasing her financial aid—which was $60,000 toward the annual tuition of $78,000. She gave her savings to her mother to pay rent anyway. “Everything was falling apart,” Carmona told The Washington Post. “My mom needed help. That’s the least I could do. It doesn’t compare to everything that she has done for us.”
Carmona’s story is the rare one with a happy ending—the GoFundMe she set up to help cover costs went viral; her story was featured on Good Morning America. The resulting coverage led to a flood of donations, and as of this writing, she has $165,000 to help pay for her schooling and help her mother get back on her feet.
It’s a nice outcome, but every day in America seems to bring a new story of teachers and lunchroom workers chipping in their sick time to get a colleague leave to go to chemotherapy or a third-grader saving up his lunch money so his classmates can pay down their lunch debt and get one square meal a day. Home Depot employees build walkers for toddlers whose insurance doesn’t cover them, and students who lose their homes in government-mismanaged natural disasters are gifted cars by magnanimous bosses so they can still clock in to work on time.
For years, morning talk shows and late-night pundits alike have built a booming business in broadcasting feel-good stories and, in response, people around the country marvel at the supposed lessons in humanity these stories provide. Carmona’s story was no different: “A Houston student was set for a top college. Then she had to use her savings to pay her mom’s rent,” reads the bleak Post headline under a smiling picture of the teenager. “Teen gives up college savings to help her mom pay rent” heads the Good Morning America story against the site’s cheery pink background. People called the story “totally sweet” and commented, rightly, that Carmona was an “amazing kid.”
But these stories don’t show what is right and good about America so much as they lay bare what is deeply broken. Taken as a whole, they paint a portrait of millions of people living on a shoestring and making desperate choices in order to cover their basic needs. Nearly every inspirational story of immense perseverance or unlikely generosity ends up just being an individual and temporary response to a much larger systemic failure.
The questions these stories raise always remain unspoken in the coverage. The smiling hosts never ask: Why do we have a health care and labor system that leaves workers unable to afford treatment or without the ability to take a day off to see a doctor? Why does lunch debt even exist? Why is GoFundMe one of the largest insurers in the country? (Even the platform’s CEO recognizes this as unsustainable: In the last year, a person in the United States has started a Covid-related fundraiser on GoFundMe every two minutes. “We are proud of the role that GoFundMe plays in connecting those in need with those who are ready to help,” CEO Tim Cadogan wrote. “But our platform was never meant to be a source of support for basic needs, and it can never be a replacement for robust federal Covid-19 relief.”)
These stories also offer partial views; we rarely revisit these subjects after their moment in the spotlight: The school whose lunch debt was paid by a magnanimous nine-year-old? Those debts have started accruing again. The man whose colleagues’ generosity helped him get to chemotherapy appointments? He beat cancer, but the vast majority of cancer patients who turn to friends and colleagues to help them overcome a health care system stacked against them are never able to pay their bills.
“We really have to stop romanticizing stories of people who are just scraping by or who are the outlier to the many more that we will lose or who do not have a GoFundMe page go viral so that they can pay for funeral costs,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the president and co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.
The inspirational story has endured because it feels good—as humans, we love a happy ending—and because the payoff of an individual response delivers much more quickly than attempts to overhaul a failed system. But more saliently, inspirational stories are safe. They leave unchallenged the current allocation of wealth, stability, and access that many of the most powerful Americans are invested in preserving—a machinery with billions of dollars and a vast network of political power backing it.
You can tell when a story challenges power and when it simply obscures it: Shows like Today cheer when high schoolers save their allowance to buy classmates the mobility aids that health insurance doesn’t cover, but police forces mobilize to drag disabled protesters from their wheelchairs when they take to the Capitol to protect their access to health care. There’s nothing wrong with the “heartwarming” act of customers leaving care packages for overworked Amazon fulfillment workers, but when gig workers could gain labor protections that would render individual acts of generosity unnecessary, companies are quickly willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy these efforts.
Last year, Kroger received widespread national praise when it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars publicizing temporary “hero pay” for employees, but then it ended the salary boost after less than two months and actually asked for some of the money back. When the city council in Long Beach, California, voted to increase wages for frontline workers during the pandemic through legislation, Kroger fired its 200 workers in the city. The feel-good story of one month quickly turned into a nightmare for these workers.
“Individual stories are obviously very important,” Connie Huynh, the health care campaign director with People’s Action, a national network of state and local grassroots organizing groups. “We need to create empathy, and people need to understand the actual impact of these problems. All of these abstract things play out in a very personal way. But at the same time, we need a commensurate analysis of what is actually driving the crisis.” These are political problems. The solutions are political, too.
Over 10 million people are currently unemployed across the country, and up to 40 million American renters are at risk of eviction, collectively owing up to $34 billion in back rent, according to a report by the National Council of State Housing Agencies. No GoFundMe could possibly cover all the costs.
In the past year, the local networks of mutual aid created by ordinary people have connected their elderly and at-risk neighbors with necessities, helped those laid off afford rent, and distributed food to young people who would no longer be getting free lunches once schools went remote. There will always be a role for mutual aid groups in our communities, which avoid pitfalls like unnecessary and excessive means-testing that plague government relief efforts. But the need for their existence exposes the failures and negligence of the state.
“The goal is to get to a place where our resources—our taxes—provide us with that safety, not the bravery of our neighbors and our friends and family. The reality is that the government has the means to ensure everybody can go to the grocery store and pick up enough food for their families every single night,” said Epps-Addison. “The government has the means to ensure that nobody gets evicted because they lost their jobs. We have the means to do that.” The power of communities to come together and care for each other is a genuinely feel-good story, but these were systems of care forged in crisis. People deserve more.