Individuals start or contribute to crowdfunding campaigs for their own reasons, but on a collective scale, Americans’ willingness to pitch in 20 bucks to a stranger online is among the defining phenomena of 2018. Its popularity is made possible by two intersecting realizations: Some of the vital structural underpinnings of life in the U.S. don’t work very well, and the ideas that end up mattering most are often those with money behind them.
Medical debt in particular helped online crowdfunding turn the corner from being mainly a project of personal desire to something both darker and more political. Debilitating health-care costs manifest as an individual problem, but they’re generally the result of flawed systems far beyond the control of the people who receive those bills. Even for those with insurance, bills can be overwhelming. And many people’s savings are running dry in general: A 2017 Federal Reserve study found that 44 percent of American adults don’t have even $400 in cash on hand in case of an emergency. That exposes a growing number of people to the sort of precariousness that can make crowdfunding attractive.
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People often think of the practical issues associated with medical problems as primarily affecting Americans who are older and, as a result, may be in worse health. But medical debt disproportionately impacts Millennials, at least in part because young people get kicked off their parents’ insurance at age 26. Young people are also more likely to be classified as independent contractors at work, and contractors rarely have access to employer-subsidized insurance. What Millennials do have, though, is a generally strong grasp of social media’s dynamics and uses, which means the best way for them to deal with the structural failures of American medical care may indeed be to leverage their online connections and cobble together the needed funds piece by piece.
Identifying who has money, who needs it, and how it can be redistributed to help the most people is also a primary project of socialism, a political ideology that has gained significant ground among young liberals in recent years. Crowdfunding, in a way, serves as a person-to-person shortcut to live those ideals in a time when structural power opposes them: People with a little extra money can give it directly to those who need a little extra, without the services of an unreliable third party.
But it isn’t just young people and the political left who have dwindling confidence in the structures that have long animated American life. The border wall, a central policy goal of Trump and his supporters, couldn’t get funded during the two years that Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. To circumvent congressional gridlock, supporters have turned to nongovernment funding alternatives, a choice that gives them potential access to a privilege previously accessible only to the very wealthy: treating large-scale government projects that will affect millions of people like personal hobbies. That’s true even if raising a significant portion of Trump’s desired $5 billion seems unlikely. (The people running the two largest border-wall crowdfunding campaigns didn’t immediately return requests for comment.)