Helaine Olen: A Florida teacher’s good fortune is a symptom of a sick system

When news organizations covered how Florida educators flooded Robert Goodman, a teacher fighting colon cancer, with donated sick and vacation days so Goodman could take time off to complete treatment after he posted a plea for help on Facebook, the story was framed as a heartwarming tale. "Today's #PositivePost is about this teacher who got the news he has cancer," tweeted a news anchor in Indianapolis. "This is a wonderful story," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Au contraire. Yes, the donors were indeed generous. But that the story exists at all highlights the cruelty of our health-care and economic system.

Earlier this summer, the chief executive of GoFundMe revealed that one in every three campaigns on the popular platform are designed to help people pay their medical bills. It's almost certain the vast majority of those campaigns don't accomplish what they set out to do: At least two studies have found that about 9 in 10 health-care fundraisers fail to meet their financial goals.

The United States is the only first-world nation that does not require employers to offer employees even one day of paid vacation. And while a number of cities and states are moving in to mandate that employees receive sick days, there is no federal requirement stipulating they need to do so. Our medical system leaves all too many people facing unpayable bills and, overall, we pay more for health care - with worse health outcomes.

All of this leaves too many people out in the cold when they need help the most. Despite our best intentions, charity and giving cannot make up for the lack of an adequate government safety net. The need is simply too great. (And it's not just medical bills: Food banks in places ranging from Dayton, Ohio, to suburban Denver have threatened to shut down in the past year because of funding shortfalls.)

On one hand, the belief that private charity can substitute for this lack of robust government safety net and workplace benefits, in one sense, speaks to our generous nature. Americans are generous givers and joiners. By a significant amount, we donate more money to charity as a percentage of GDP than anyone else, and we are also more likely to volunteer. But this doesn't change the fact that we are turning needy and often desperate people into beggars and supplicants at a moment when they are at their most vulnerable. People who need funds are often cautioned to be positive, and are reminded that running a successful online fundraiser takes a lot of effort and initiative. That there is something morally suspect about making the sick or poverty-stricken prove their case barely seems to register.

In fact, the belief that charity by itself has the power to successfully combat poverty and injustice has repeatedly surfaced during periods of high income and wealth inequality. The concept of noblesse oblige permeated royal regimes in Europe, while the first gilded age in the United States saw an emphasis on giving to the poor and underprivileged, a movement that gave us both settlement houses and Carnegie libraries. Our era has seen such things as President George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" and the "compassionate conservatism" of his son, President George W. Bush, as well as the Giving Pledge, in which billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates urge other similarly financially fortunate individuals to promise to use the majority of their fortunes for charitable needs.

But the same way the Great Depression led many to the conclusion that private charity could not solve the problems of mass poverty, it seems many Americans are realizing individual charitable acts, lovely though they may be, can’t make up for institutional and government support. Polls show a majority of voters support paid family and medical leave, and expanding Medicare and Medicaid. And last week, more than a few pushed back at how Goodman’s story was told. “This is more heartbreaking than heartwarming to me,” tweeted one woman. That’s the right response. There is nothing inspirational about how the United States fails to support its sick. It’s just sickening.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.