Crowdfunding for Healthcare and Education: Old Wine in New Bottles?

Erik Schneiderhan, University of Toronto
Martin Lukk, University of Toronto

In the late nineteenth century, social assistance in the U.S. and Canada was provided by a patchwork of charity organizations, churches, and limited public relief programs whose help was conditional and unreliable. Those in need instead often sought alms among the crowds they encountered in large urban centers, whether groups of strangers in city squares, flocks of churchgoers, or the residents of a particular neighborhood. The rise of the welfare state in the mid-twentieth century, which institutionalized basic supports for the well-being of most Americans and Canadians, was a response to these haphazard and inequitable efforts at public aid. It also made the practice of directly asking strangers for money and other help much less common. This paper argues that crowdfunding, a novel form of internet-based charitable fundraising that has received substantial attention in the last decade, represents a return to the fundamentals of nineteenth-century charity. Crowdfunding involves individuals using dedicated websites to make pleas for help with expenses associated with, e.g., healthcare and education. These appeals are posted to public websites and are used to solicit donations from “crowds” of anonymous Internet users. We use historical records and contemporary interviews to compare accounts of nineteenth-century alms-seeking to those of today’s crowdfunding users, noting continuities in both the structural circumstances described as well as individuals’ efforts to get help. We supplement this comparison with original quantitative data documenting crowdfunding’s prevalence. Ultimately, we suggest that the practice of alms-seeking tracks the rise and fall of the social welfare state over the last century and that the popularity of crowdfunding is a striking measure of the weakness of the North American welfare state today.

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 Presented in Session 256. Public and Private Means of Social Protection