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Can Venmo Samaritans get struggling Americans through the pandemic?

It could be weeks before unemployed Americans get stimulus checks, but individuals are stepping up to help strangers. Will it be enough?

Miquette Newbold holds her daughter, 3-week-old Aria, while having dinner with her husband, Jon, and their sons, Elijah, 7, Isaac, 2, and Asher, 5, left to right, at their home in Kaysville on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Miquette Newbold holds her daughter, 3-week-old Aria, while having dinner with her husband, Jon, and their sons, Elijah, 7, Isaac, 2, and Asher, 5, left to right, at their home in Kaysville on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Three months into a global pandemic, the bank balances of millions of Americans are shrinking. Record job losses and reduced hours have left many people unable to pay their bills.

Enter the coronavirus Samaritans.

Using apps like Venmo and NextDoor, people who have money are giving it to strangers who don’t. Others are paying service providers, such as hairdressers and pet sitters, for services they didn’t receive. And a nonprofit that has given cash to struggling families in Africa for more than a decade has launched a program to quickly get help to Americans who are spiraling toward insolvency.

While charitable giving is not new, the technology supporting this grass-roots assistance is — as is the growing belief that the best way to help people is to give them cash, with no strings attached. That’s the mission of the nonprofit GiveDirectly, which is surprising some of the poorest people in areas hit hard by COVID-19 with $1,000 to use on anything they deem important.

Meanwhile, fintech apps are even being used to help friends at a time when personal visits seem risky, as when a woman in Utah recently supplied dinner for a friend with a new baby — by sending money through Venmo instead of delivering a home-cooked meal.

With government assistance in the form of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits still weeks, if not months, away, can generous individuals keep America afloat during the pandemic?

Avalanche of aid

He may not have started it, but Twitter personality Yashar Ali has been a significant driver of person-to-person aid, beginning with a viral post on March 29, in which he wrote about a waitress who had lost her job and was eating just one meal a day in order to save money so she could feed her children and elderly parents.

“She told me it was a ‘big meal’ but I know she was just trying to make me feel better,” he wrote, adding that there are tens of millions of Americans in this predicament.

“Do you understand that your neighbor has $75 in their bank account left or $321 because of overdraft fees?” he added. “Do people understand how terrifying it is that Congress is only sending a single check for $1,200 to people? A check that will take weeks to arrive if the IRS has your bank info and up to four months to arrive if they don’t.”

He concluded by asking people in need to respond with their Venmo or Cash App information and said that he would send some of them money, and urged others with the resources to do the same. “Give people, lots of people, cash.”

The post generated not just poignant requests for help (one person sent him the password to log into her bank account so he would see the balance), but also an avalanche of aid. Some strangers sent money to people who tweeted their circumstances and contact information; others invited people to reach out to them directly, like a Louisville teacher who wrote: “I’m not sitting on a mil, but I’m blessed enough to want to be a blessing. If you’re a single father out of work, DM me your Cash App.”

Similarly, the writer Roxane Gay announced that she would give $100 to 10 people who were broke and needed food. She wound up giving $100 to 20 people, and inspired others to give, too.

People are also turning to Venmo to help their friends in other ways. Miquette Newbold of Kaysville recently had a baby, her fourth child, and a friend wanted to bring the family dinner, but was hesitant to do so because of the risk of unwittingly transmitting the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 424,000 Americans and killed more than 14,000 as of Wednesday.

So instead, the friend sent money via Venmo for pizza. “It was a nice way for her to remember me at a time when it is hard to serve like you normally would,” Newbold said.

Even Venmo has gotten in on the action, randomly depositing money into the accounts of users who have used the app for a kindness.

“We were inspired by how our Venmo community is helping one another during this time, so we decided to #VenmoItForward by sending small payments of thanks to some of the users who are supporting relief on the front lines to help them do even more,” said Venmo spokeswoman Juliet Niczewicz in an email.

Ali is also among advocates for continuing to pay service providers even when the service is no longer available. Others have suggested ordering take-out several times a week and tipping 100% to help people in the food service industry who are financially stressed because of widespread shutdowns.

Suzie Ellison plays with her dogs at her business, Aarf Dogwalking and Pet Sitting, in Murray on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Suzie Ellison plays with her dogs at her business, Aarf Dogwalking and Pet Sitting, in Murray on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Suzie Ellison, the owner/manager of Aarf Dogwalking and Petsitting in Salt Lake City, has been both a beneficiary and a giver of assistance like this. Even before Utah’s stay-at-home directive was issued, she had lost business at the Aarf House, her boarding facility in Murray, because of people canceling vacation trips.

Then last week, she had to furlough 11 employees.

But Ellison has had clients say they are sending her money to help keep the 12-year-old business solvent, and many are paying in advance for services they will book once the business reopens.

For her part, Ellison said she is continuing to pay her biweekly housecleaner even though she is no longer cleaning. “I just feel like it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “If my clients are helping us to stay afloat, I want to do it for the people I can, like the guy who mows my lawn. I think we should do all we can to help each other stay financially afloat during these tough times.”

Suzie Ellison plays with her dogs at her business, Aarf Dogwalking and Pet Sitting, in Murray on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Suzie Ellison plays with her dogs at her business, Aarf Dogwalking and Pet Sitting, in Murray on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Money for nothing

While money for a basket of groceries or a tank of gas can be a blessing for someone whose money is running low, imagine getting a surprise $1,000 when you are nearly broke.

That’s happening for hundreds of the poorest of Americans, thanks to the nonprofit GiveDirectly, which is working with the software company Propel, maker of the FreshEBT app that food-stamp recipients use, to identify the people most in need in COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S.

The company began giving one-time cash grants in Kenya about 10 years ago, then expanded to other African nations, said Joe Huston, GiveDirectly’s managing director. A few years ago, they began distributing cash in areas hit by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Dorian in 2019. And they began providing pandemic help in the U.S. last month.

While it can be personally fulfilling to connect with someone online, there is an element of risk in using social media because of the potential for scams. GiveDirectly and Propel work together to ensure contributions are going to the people with the greatest need.

“We help find people you can trust are very, very vulnerable. If you don’t know somebody, and don’t want to do the due diligence, we will find somebody who needs it,” he said. “They were vulnerable before COVID-19 struck, and they have certainly been made more vulnerable by COVID-19.”

As of Tuesday, GiveDirectly had given $1,000 each to nearly 2,000 people in the U.S., using donations given specifically for COVID-19 relief. Donations are accepted in any amount, using credit cards, stock transfers or Bitcoin; the average donation is $500, Huston said.

The company is also asking people who are getting federal stimulus money and don’t need it to sign a pledge saying they will give the money to those who do. As of Tuesday, 640 people had signed up on the GiveDirectly website.

Recipients of the grants are asked if they are willing to share what they did with the money. Among the responses: Michelle in the Bronx said she bought her children laptops so they could participate in their schools’ remote learning program; Kiara, also in the Bronx, bought toilet paper and food for her household, and for her mother, and sent money to friends and family in the Dominican Republic; and Montano in San Francisco said he used the money to pay past-due rent.

The organization’s work comes at a time when there is an increasing call for regular cash payments, or a universal basic income, to help fight poverty and counter income inequality. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang made the topic part of the national conversation, and the financial losses caused by the pandemic worldwide have prompted many governments to institute cash payments to citizens, including Canada and Spain.

“This is a time when people are really turning to cash transfers as a way to help, in a way that I haven’t seen before,” Huston said. That said, he believes that the efforts of nonprofits and person-to-person giving can’t on their own stave off the economic damage done by the pandemic.

“There’s basically no chance that individual efforts alone will keep us afloat. The sudden stop has been so severe, and it’s a little shocking to see,” he said.

“Nonprofits and private altruism have a huge place and can help fill gaps while we’re waiting for the government response, but ultimately, we’re going to need governments all around the world to respond pretty substantially.”