Gotham Gazette

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9/11/01-02: Charity Began At Ground Zero, But Where Will It Wind Up?

The American public responded more generously than ever before when the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11. As of September 5, 2002, over $2.2 billion was raised, according to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

One unintended effect of these gifts has been controversy over their distribution among victims of the attack and their families. If the nation had applied free-market philosophy to this situation, no charitable assistance would have been necessary. Victims' involvement in the attack would be attributed to bad luck and individual choice. Employees of businesses in the trade center buildings would be seen as having chosen to take their chances in a building complex bombed by terrorists in 1993. Police officers and firefighters would be seen as having chosen dangerous careers, with extra financial rewards in return for the risks. Even airline passengers could be seen as having chosen a form of transportation in which there is little hope of survival if the vehicle suffers damage.

Fortunately, people across the nation applied a different standard to this tragedy, one of mutual aid. According to a poll by the Independent Sector taken in October 2001, about 70 percent of Americans gave blood, donated money, volunteered their time, or in some other way tried to help the victims of the attack and their families.

However, the unity expressed by these donations does not extend to how they should be used. The resulting dissension reveals the diversity of meanings attached to words like "fairness," "victim," "family," and "need".


It was understood at the start that "victims" were people killed or injured in the attack, and that their "families" were their wives, husbands and children. The public was also eager to see help given to workers involved in the rescue and cleanup efforts.

Other relatives of the deceased soon made their claims on assistance clear. Parents, siblings, and domestic partners were added to a broadened definition of "family". Some charities gave help to anyone financially dependent on the victim, including former wives and their children.

Because so much money was collected, charities were able to stretch the meaning of "victim" still further, to cover others harmed by direct results of the tragedy: the 70,000 people who lost their jobs, the 6,000 downtown residents who had to leave their homes, and neighboring small businesses and nonprofits whose offices were thrown into physical or functional disorder by the event.

For some purposes, the definition of the disaster itself was extended to include anthrax attacks and post 9/11 hate crimes. The Uniformed Firefighters Association extended payments from its relief fund to families of all firefighters killed in the line of duty since 1980, and in the future.


"Fairness" is another ambiguous term; its interpretation goes to the heart of our inconsistent convictions about how people should treat one another. There are many methods for dividing up September 11 funds, and each has been championed by one or another constituency.

Distributing funds according to financial need would give more money to a family that was poor before the disaster, and less to one whose breadwinner earned a high income and maintained life insurance. According to Shawn Pattison of the Robin Hood Foundation, their September 11-related relief fund follows this principle. "Robin Hood wants to make sure no one falls through the cracks, particularly low-income people," he says. Robin Hood targets its relief efforts toward groups like immigrant communities isolated by language barriers and fear of deportation, and low-income people with mental illness. "There were Central Americans working as day laborers cleaning up the site," he explains, "and they were not given proper protective equipment. A number are quite ill now." Robin Hood supports the Latin American Workers Project, which provides health services and financial help to these victims.

Other cases inspire more disagreement as to what constitutes need. Does it include making monthly mortgage payments on a million-dollar house? Families of the victims expect donations to enable them to maintain the standard of living they had before the disaster. However, the Internal Revenue Service has explicitly barred charities from distributing money to families of victims based on their living expenses before September 11. The large nonprofits that control most of the September 11 donations have decided not only how much cash to give victims for paying bills, but also what kinds of services victims need. The major ones turned out to be mental health counseling and employment services, which are not what might be expected by viewers of news coverage of relief efforts in response to earlier man-made and natural disasters.


In the most literal interpretation of a distribution of aid based on equality, you would give the same amount to each victim. This would mean giving the same amount to a person whose store was closed for a week due to roadblocks, as to a widow with young children.

A more nuanced interpretation of "equality" gives equal shares to all people in the same situation. The Uniformed Firefighters Association gave $50,000 to the family of each married firefighter who was killed, but did not initially extend this policy to beneficiaries of single firefighters. After protest by the excluded relatives, the firefighters' union gave $50,000 to domestic partners, parents and other beneficiaries of deceased unmarried firefighters. The Robin Hood fund did not distinguish between levels of need when it sent $5,000 one-time payments to each family of the victims killed on September 11. "By late November, it was clear from talking to many of our families that the money was just not getting through," says Pattison. In this situation, all families were subject to the same bureaucratic delays in releasing aid; later and larger distributions could be expected to adjust the total aid to each family according to a yardstick of need.

The September 11th Fund, a joint project of the United Way of New York City and the Fund for the City of New York, collected $501 million, more than any charity other than the Red Cross' Liberty Fund. The September 11th Fund set the value of emergency cash assistance at two levels, depending on the degree of loss. Injured survivors and victims' families would get $10,000 each; people who lost jobs or homes as a direct result of the attack received $2,500 each. The same amounts were given in a second round of cash assistance.


The court system calculates the value of human lives as it goes about its everyday business. The wrongful death of a young person counts as a greater loss than the death of a retiree, because of the years of future work that are lost. Higher salaries at the time of death mean more lost income. Higher levels of education imply the possibility of career advancement leading to higher salaries. This method of determining the amount of assistance is favored by many of the victims' families. Those whose deceased relatives would have earned the most have the greatest incentive to call for this model of assistance, and it forms one element in the federal government's calculation of awards from the Victims Compensation Fund.

Financial loss also decides the size of loans and grants being given to businesses and nonprofits in the vicinity of Ground Zero, many of whom were unable to function normally for weeks or months. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises federally-funded grants and loans based on their annual revenues.


Most of the help being offered in recognition of emotional loss takes the form of mental health services or tangible gifts. The web site of the Twin Towers Fund "recognizes the importance of families spending time together in a fun and relaxing environment," and offers a variety of special events to the relatives of uniformed officers killed on September 11. They include sleepaway camp for children, golf camp for adults, free tickets to Mets games, sailing lessons, and sightseeing cruises from New York Waterways. Both the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the Twin Towers Fund are planning holiday parties in December for the families they serve.


The sacrifices made by police officers and firefighters inspired intense sympathy in the general public, which gives extra weight to the death of a member of these forces even in normal times. A study of 37 relief funds serving September 11 victims showed that nearly half of the cash paid directly to victims and their families went to relatives of police officers, firefighters, and court officers.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is offering payments to downtown residents, implying that people who remain in the neighborhood for the long term are more valued than those who leave or have recently arrived. Their web site offers a minimum grant of $1,000 to households, within specific boundaries, whose residents who lived at their present address last September 11. At least $750 more will be given to families who commit to staying in the area for at least one year, if they have one or more children younger than 18.


According to Barbara Bryan, president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, many charities were "overcome by the size of the generosity and by the size of the need, and all the different levels of need." At the end of October 2001, the Red Cross announced it had collected more than enough to meet the needs of the victims -- so much more that its Liberty Fund could start underwriting some of the agency's more routine costs for services to American troops on active duty; community outreach to encourage neutrality, unity and tolerance; and telecommunications equipment, computer systems and accounting services. It also intended to set aside about half of the Liberty Fund for future needs of the WTC victims or for victims of future terrorist attacks.

This plan made the Red Cross the target of a growing sense of frustration and distrust among donors, victims' families and Ground Zero workers. Chief Executive Bernadine Healy was forced to resign; the organization was questioned by the United States Congress. The Red Cross had to revise its plan, promising to give out about half of the Liberty Fund by the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.

The September 11th Fund chose a different route. It conducted surveys of the general public in October and November of 2001, polling both donors and non-donors to September 11-related charities. The results supported the fund's decisions to expand services to the broad range of victims described above, and to provide a variety of short-term and long-term services in addition to cash assistance.


Even with public opinion polls, it is not possible to aid disaster victims in a way that pleases everyone. Each method of dividing up disaster relief funds reflects a conviction about what makes a good society; the subject stirs up almost as much passion as the idea of the World Trade Center disaster itself.

Distributing charitable aid based on financial need implies that charity should even out economic differences between recipients. Giving equal shares to all implies that charity does not have to take into account the different situations of recipients before the event that created their shared need. Giving charitable aid in proportion to the recipient's economic loss implies that charity should honor victims' property rights by preserving the existing hierarchy of wealth. Using non-monetary aid to compensate victims for emotional losses suggests that such suffering cannot be measured and is best addressed symbolically. Basing levels of aid on the victim's value to society implies that charity's purpose is to benefit society as a whole. And leaving the decision of how to use donations up to the donor means that their right to control their money trumps the greater experience of charitable professionals in determining the best use of assistance.

Barbara Bryan believes that charities will have to change in response to the disputes over disaster relief for the victims of September 11. "You have to be very clear about what you're asking for, " she says, but she is not sure of the specific steps that will have to be taken. "People are still trying to take lessons from all of this."

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

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