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After a Tragedy, Calculating the Best Ways That People Can Help

Publication Date: 
May 31, 2013
The New York Times

Professor Michele Landis Dauber spoke with The New York Times about the need for a more organized and effective disaster relief system and the “inequalities and inequities” associated with individual victims’ funds.

UNFORTUNATELY, it has become a sad tradition. An unthinkable tragedy occurs — the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We are stunned, and then — to help the victims, to start the healing, to just feel like we are doing something — we give money.

And a few months later, news reports pop up. The funds aren’t being disbursed properly. Charities are competing to collect. The money isn’t going to the right people or it’s not being handed out quickly enough. And the milk of human kindness sours a little.


Michele Landis Dauber, a professor of law and sociology at Stanford, who has long studied disaster relief, noted that wanting to give to people instead of a general cause is not new.

The famous Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange and others were aimed at raising support for New Deal programs. But people often wanted to donate directly to the people shown in the pictures, she said.

“But just because people want to give to an icon doesn’t mean they should,” said Professor Dauber, who is the author of “The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State.” “What if all the needs are met — what do we do with the excess money? And why cut it off at five people? What happens if four people are injured or killed?”