Charity wasn’t enough before the crisis. It won’t save the working class from COVID-19.
by Dayna Long
In one week following Governor Evers’ declaration of a Public Health Emergency in the state of Wisconsin, a group of businesses and wealthy donors amassed nearly a million dollars for a Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund. The fundraising was spearheaded by Michael Johnson, executive director of the Dane County Boys & Girls Club, which is acting as fiscal agent for the fund. On Friday, March 20th, Johnson appeared in a video press conference alongside Renee Moe, executive director of United Way. He explained that the fund will be used to award grants to individuals and organizations providing aid during the COVID-19 emergency. The process will be fast-tracked, with the intention of awarding grants and cutting checks by March 31st. Anyone familiar with grantmaking processes will recognize that this is lightning speed, which is laudable. Funds raised to address an emergency should be distributed as fast as possible.
Additionally, the need for aid and assistance right now is huge. Nearly 30,000 people filed for unemployment in Wisconsin last week. As whole industries shut down due to the recommended social isolation, layoffs have become commonplace. Our nation’s economic meltdown will make this worse. And at the same time that many workers have lost their income, some of the supports they might have relied on – like the free and reduced-cost meals their kids could eat at school – have been pulled out from under them. Workers who have kept their jobs, either working from home or commuting, are also struggling to find replacement childcare or to balance caring for their children with working full time, as daycares also close. Simultaneously, families are being advised to shell out for two weeks or even a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries to reduce their number of trips outside the home and prepare for eventual quarantine. For anyone living week to week or even day to day, this suggestion is an impossibility.
The fact is, people were struggling before any of us had even heard of COVID-19, when the economy was still booming. For some, the COVID-19 emergency is just the latest disaster in a series of events and systemic inequities that have left them homeless and hungry. For others, it will be the last straw that takes them over the edge from precarity to crisis.
Given the harsh reality so many people are facing, it makes sense that many are excited and relieved about the seemingly overnight creation of a Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund. And it is indisputably positive that people will be helped due to the creation of the fund. But that doesn’t mean that the entire situation is positive. In fact, there’s a lot for socialists to be critical and even wary of.
In the March 20th press conference, United Way Executive Director Renee Moe explained that United Way had been working closely with public health, the city, the county, the school districts, and its non-profit partner organizations to determine how best to fill community need during the COVID-19 emergency. That United Way sees public institutions like city and county government, public health, and the school district as partners is very telling. It shows that the Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund is another example of the transfer of responsibility for public welfare from the state to private philanthropy. In other words, instead of the city, county, and state government taking care of people in Dane County through robust social programs, we are now at the mercy of a class of businesses and donors and their favored non-profits for care, a neoliberal fantasy. This is wholly undesirable for a number of reasons.
First, our public institutions are subject to public oversight and democracy, however limited and flawed. We choose alders, county board supervisors, and school board members. We elect our mayors, our county executive, and our state leaders, the people who have direct oversight of Public Health Madison & Dane County. When it comes to how the city and county provides services to the people who live here, there is at least the possibility that residents can have an influence.
On the other hand, residents of Dane County did not vote for Renee Moe or Michael Johnson, for the heads of local non-profits and service organizations, or for the members of the boards that often govern these organizations. We have no control over how the funds that were collected will be used and we do not get a say in the criteria that will be used to determine which individuals and organizations receive funding. This is fundamentally undemocratic, which is not just a problem of principles but actually undercuts the effectiveness of our response to this emergency. No one knows better what people need and how their needs can best be met than people themselves. There is no better authority on the circumstances and challenges facing individuals than an individual’s own lived experience. Even the best, most thoughtful food pantries are no substitute for giving people money and allowing them to decide how to use it. This is why socialists should be demanding a universal basic income as a part of the COVID-19 response.
But the fact is, many non-profits aren’t the best or most thoughtful. How could they be? While good non-profits often try to assemble a diverse board of directors that includes a range of experiences and perspectives, a criteria for many boards is the ability to give money and a social network that includes other people who can make substantial donations. This immediately excludes most working class people, the individuals with the most knowledge and experience about working class people’s needs. The result, at many organizations, is a board of directors that is older, whiter, and substantially wealthier than the rest of the society. These are the people who make decisions about the mission and priorities of non-profit organizations, including at least some of the organizations that will receive funding from the Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund.
In addition to the fact that farming out public welfare to private institutions is undemocratic and less effective than giving people the ability to care for themselves, there’s the funders themselves to consider. Among many big contributors to the Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund are Madison Gas & Electric and Alliant Energy Center, two organizations who actually harm our community by continuing to use dirty and expensive fossil fuels to supply our energy. One also has to wonder if a $100,000 donation from MG &E is getting off easy compared to measures that would lessen the financial burden on individuals and allow them to make different decisions about how to use their money during the COVID-19 crisis, such as waiving or steeply discounting families’ utility bills.
That really brings us to the fundamental problem with the non-profit industry as a whole. Non-profit organizations, which rely on private philanthropy, are fulfilling many needs that were previously met by the government and would be guaranteed in a socialist society. They have proliferated in the United States and around the world specifically because it is cheaper for businesses and wealthy individuals with family foundations and trusts to make a few major donations than it would be for them to pay the sorts of taxes that would fund a strong social safety net or better still, for them to pay all of their workers a living wage, with paid leave and full benefits. We are riddled with non-profits because they’re better for rich people, not because they’re good for the rest of us. They lend exorbitantly wealthy people, big corporations, and problematic industries a charitable veneer and help conceal a fundamental fact: that some families have so much money that they can give away $50,000 at the drop of a hat – more money than most Americans make in a year – is the reason that some families have no money and fell behind on their rent just one week into an international crisis.
Charity does not challenge the social order that has left so many families – families served by charities – in ruin. What we need instead of charity is solidarity.
Solidarity can take the form of mutual aid projects, like the one being so well operated by members of the IWW’s General Defense Committee of Madison. They provide assistance with no strings attached, not help through the lens of ruling class morality, with determinations about which people are actually deserving of care. It is a community project and people’s willingness to volunteer or give money is not conditional based on what sort of recognition they’ll receive at the end. It will leave Madison’s working class stronger by creating networks and empowering working people to help each other through their own self-organization. These are the kinds of projects that socialists should involve themselves in and support at this moment of crisis, especially because – perhaps unsurprisingly – the GDC Mutual Aid Project’s request for funding from Dane County COVID-19 Community Emergency Fund was rejected on the grounds that the GDC is not a 501(c)3.
We also have to recognize that mutual aid by itself won’t be enough. If working class people had the wealth to lift one another out of crushing poverty and crisis, we would have done it by now.
We must also demonstrate solidarity in the most classic sense, workers supporting the struggles of other workers. We have to have the backs of workers who refuse unsafe working conditions. We should support the demand that grocery workers be designated Emergency Workers. They should receive free childcare, free healthcare, hazard pay, and unlimited paid sick leave to use if they do become infected. And we have to fight for doctors and nurses. Hospitals are woefully unprepared for the coming crisis and healthcare workers are not being provided with the kinds of safety equipment that they need to do their jobs without getting sick. Making sure that healthcare workers have what they need to stay safe on the job is a question of life or death for them and for the entire working class that relies on these workers for care. Healthcare worker shortages will impact the working class first and worst.
Finally, this moment requires that we fight to win major concessions from government in order to save lives, keep people in housing, and pull folks back from the brink of financial disaster. This should include organizing around demands like a universal income (not a paltry one-time payment of $1,200), nationwide halts on rent and mortgage collection, and debt forgiveness, at the expense of the rich. They will take this crisis and use it to extract more profit from working people, while making inadequate gestures at generosity through NGOs managed by their friends. It’s time to turn the table to save ourselves.