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Struggling Families Are Turning to Crowdfunding for Help, But Are They Successful?

For most parents, the arrival of a new baby is cause for unbridled joy. But for newlyweds, Kristen and Charlie King of Spokane, Washington, the joy brought by the birth of their first baby together has been marred by unexpected medical bills and, by extension, out of pocket expenses that their meager incomes simply could not cover. With very little options available, the couple, like many others, have since turned to the internet for help. But the question remains if the phenomenon that is crowdfunding is actually the help that it is promised to be.

It’s an all too common story

When the Kings gave birth to baby Jaxon, they found out the hard way that every support system they thought they had in place had been shut right in their faces. Jaxon had been born several weeks early. Not only that, he has a tongue defect that makes it harder for him to nurse. Unable to feed and losing weight fast, he incurred—and is still incurring—huge medical bills.

Kirsten, a disabled veteran who served in the United States Army for a decade as a helicopter mechanic, had enjoyed a decent insurance coverage from the Department of Veterans Affairs after she was discharged after a back injury. However, she later found out that her new baby is not covered in her policy. Her husband, Charlie, is also a disabled veteran with a fixed income. Currently, she works as a cook at a local bistro. But although she was given ample time off for doctor-ordered bed rest and subsequent maternity leave, none of them was paid. Not only that, her maternity leave coincided with the enrollment period for workplace insurance policy, leaving her unable to get coverage for Jaxon.

Because of this series of unfortunate events, the Kings ended up struggling through the holidays. Not only were they unable to pay for their rent and car payments, but they were also unable to meet the monthly payments for their wedding rings and even buy Christmas presents for Charlie’s older sons.

“We spent Christmas sitting around the house, staring at each other, trying to decide how we’re going to buy formula,” Kirsten said. It was then that the couple decided to turn to GoFundMe, a popular crowdfunding website, to help pay for some of the new baby’s medical expenses.

The struggle is real

The Kings are not the only ones who have turned to GoFundMe and other crowdfunding websites for help with medical bills. Childbirth makes up a huge portion of medical bankruptcies as the US has among the highest costs of giving birth in the developed world, and the costs only skyrocket when complications are present. In fact, with the US healthcare system in its current beleaguered state, appeals for medical help comprised over half of all campaigns in GoFundMe alone between 2015 and 2016, amounting to $930 million.

Nora Kenworthy and Lauren Berliners, two professors from the University of Washington who are actively studying medical crowdfunding, repeatedly encounter cases wherein new parents raise money for complications in childbirth, such as premature deliveries like the King’s case and even Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) stays. This has led them to conclude that there is something inherently wrong with the healthcare system. Nora goes on to say that the general rule is that if they chance upon a group of people who are unable to meet the costs of their medical bills, and who are not being helped by their insurance, there is crowdfunding for them. “Crowdfunding is a product of the persistent gaps in our healthcare system. When people fall through those gaps, they often turn to these platforms as a last resort,” Nora said.

Unfortunately, not all crowdfunding efforts are created equal, as Kenworthy and Berliner’s research is finding. Crowdfunding is largely reliant on having a “large social network with money to spare,” which really entrenches inequality. This means that certain demographics enjoy more success than others. In fact, out of 200 campaigns in their study, only 10% reached their goals. The Kings are a prime example. After over two months, they are very close but yet to meet their goal of $1,500, and it is already well after their Christmas goal.

One likely reason for this is that the Kings’ situation is actually a common one—a gap in insurance coverage, a tight budget, and bad timing. But with many people in more or less the same boat, who else can they turn to?

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