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The problem with crowdfunding: It doesn’t help the needy crowd

James Robertson, 56, of Detroit, walked toward Woodward Aveune in Detroit to catch his morning bus in January of this year. (Ryan Garza/AP)

I’m not a fan of crowdfunding for the celebrity cause of the moment.

The Internet has made it so much easier for people to pony up money for any person or family whose story gets picked up — by social media, newspapers, network and cable shows — that it has become trendy to give.

Case in point: A 56-year-old Detroit man was profiled in the media for his amazing work ethic. James Robertson didn’t have a car, so as part of his commute, he took two buses and walked 21 miles round trip to get to his factory job. He is to be admired.

A young man who learned about Robertson decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to help him buy a car. Money started blowing in like the blizzards of New England this month. More than 13,000 people sent in a total of $350,000. But then a local dealership gave Robertson a new red Ford Taurus. Robertson still gets to keep the money, and some financial companies have offered their services for free to help manage it.

The story is heartwarming. People who donated to Robertson should feel good about their generosity.

But I’m disturbed that the story has become more about one man than an issue that should be highlighted, which is the lack of public transportation and the inability of many low-income families to earn enough to even own a car.

There are so many others out there who are struggling to make it to work, but because their story isn’t extraordinary, they don’t receive the same empathy as the Detroit walker.

Robertson’s good fortune demonstrates that people are eager to help those they think are worthy. There are many other men and women taking buses and subways for several hours a day to get to and from work. Their jobs aren’t close to where they can afford to live, or public transportation doesn’t extend far enough. They aren’t a “good story,” so we don’t feel for them. But we should.

“There is growing evidence that transportation — particularly access to automobiles — plays an important role in shaping the residential location choices and economic outcomes of low-income households,” wrote researchers from the Urban Institute, the University of Maryland and the University of California at Los Angeles in a report released last year. “Automobiles and high-quality public transit services can enable participants to better search for housing as well as provide access to potential employment, services and other opportunities within a reasonable travel time.”

An earlier report by the Brookings Institution found that workers in low-income suburban communities on average “can access only about 22 percent of metropolitan jobs in low- and middle-skill industries for which they may be most qualified” — in 90 minutes of commuting time.

And what more can we do?

Give regularly, as part of your budget, even when you may not know the backstory of the person in need. How about donating your old car to a charity that gives it to someone trying to get to a good job? When people want or even need another car, their old car is typically traded in to help reduce the cost of the next one. My husband and I never trade in a car. We fix it up and give it to someone we know needs transportation.

Whenever I write about low-income families and their struggles, I am criticized if I show concern. Why don’t I preach financial responsibility?

It’s been my mission, my passion to talk about ways to manage money well and the virtues of hard work — things I learned from my grandmother Big Mama. I recall in one major snowstorm, when the roads were too dangerous to drive, she walked two miles to work and back. She had to leave before daylight. She set an example for me.

Still, as a society, we need to show compassion for the underprivileged. Even people who make poor decisions deserve help to lift them from poverty.

So, no, I’m not feeling all warm and fuzzy about the $350,000 that was so easily raised for Robertson, because far too often people are generous only when they feel someone deserves the benevolence.

Before the car and the $350,000, Robertson said something in a video posted by the Detroit Free Press that we ought to remember, because he knew it wasn’t just about him: “I figure even if my situation changes, you never forget that there are so many other people that are in my situation.”

Write Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to