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Charitable complications
$1.4 billion has been raised for the September 11 survivors. But many of the grieving and out-of-work still haven’t seen a relief check. What’s going on?


IS IT FAIR that the family of a New York firefighter who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center will receive checks totaling $325,000 plus a lifetime pension, when the family of a food-service worker at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the WTC, gets just $15,000 in financial relief? Is it fair that the married spouse of a victim who died in the attack will receive Social Security benefits when the gay partner of someone who died the same way will not? Is it fair that the families of undocumented immigrants have yet to see a penny of the $1.4 billion raised in charitable contributions to help those affected by the attacks?

Of course it’s not fair. But the hard truth about the September 11 relief effort is that some families will end up receiving far more benefits than others. Why? Because a huge portion of the donated money is reserved for certain victims only. It’s a sensitive topic, but one that must be addressed by charitable organizations, whose duty is to help those people who need it most.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, Americans have donated more money for disaster-relief efforts than ever before: $1.4 billion and counting. Yet just 10 percent of the money raised thus far has been distributed. Not surprisingly, the trickling of the money stream has angered critics such as Bill O’Reilly, the conservative host of Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and a syndicated columnist. In an October 29 piece, O’Reilly characterizes the current situation as "so chaotic that nobody really knows what the hell is going on." He concludes: "This is one big, cruel mess."

Such criticisms have grown so loud that even Congress has taken note. Last Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee took the unusual step of establishing a subcommittee to hold a November 8 public hearing on how charities have responded to the September 11 attacks. While announcing the hearing, the subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Amo Houghton, a New York Republican, opined: "I believe if a person gives money to help another through a charitable contribution, that money should end up as quickly as possible in the hands of the one who needs it."

But who determines who needs what? Many charities set up to aid victims of the attacks don’t have to think about the question at all — from the start, many of the funds were earmarked for certain groups of survivors. New York mayor Rudy Guiliani’s Twin Towers Fund, for example, is raising money for families of firefighters, police officers, emergency workers, and other government personnel. The fund has collected $88 million; its Web site declares that "[i]f resources permit, families of other persons who lost their lives or were injured during the tragedies may also be included as beneficiaries." (How that decision will be made remains unclear; fund administrators did not return phone calls from the Phoenix.) Eight additional funds are also slated to benefit families of New York firefighters and police.

Among the largest is the Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund, which has accumulated $51 million for the families of the 344 firefighters who died in the September 11 catastrophe. George Burke, spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which is administering the fund, says the IAFF has hand-delivered checks totaling $7 million to widows — all the firefighters who died were men — so they can pay mortgages and "buy clothes for the kids to wear to funerals." But the fund must be put into perspective. When the millions of dollars are divided up, each family will get only $150,000. "Is it enough for a widow who has five kids to live in New York?" Burke asks, and then answers: "Probably not. We’re not making people millionaires. We’re reaching out to loved ones of our fallen brothers."

To be sure, no one doubts that families of firefighters and police officers — who daily put their lives at risk and, by storming into the towers, ran straight to their deaths — deserve every penny of what’s available to them. In fact, many people who have donated generously to the firefighters’ fund would be delighted to see surviving family members get a million dollars or more. Says Kathleen McCarthy, who heads the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York (CUNY), "Everyone in New York feels the firemen were magnificent. We cannot possibly overpay them."

Nevertheless, McCarthy — and many other observers — note that some other victims’ families simply do not have the same safety nets. For instance, a structure to help families of the 404 firefighters, police officers, and emergency workers who died on September 11 was already in place even before special charities were set up to help these groups. These families are already entitled to a federal death benefit of $150,000. In New York, surviving spouses of firefighters and police officers also receive $25,000 from Guiliani’s office, as well as a lifetime pension that’s equal to their deceased spouse’s last year’s earnings. Compare that to the families of the 43 union dishwashers, waiters, and cooks who perished at Windows on the World: they’ll get only $15,000 in life insurance. This month, their union-paid health insurance will terminate.

In a September 20 article, the New York Times brought the equity issue to life through the stories of two widows who, on the surface, seem on equal footing. They happen to be sisters-in-law; they live in Stony Point, New York. Both of their husbands had worked on the floors occupied by Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company at 1 World Trade Center. The first widow, Ann McCarthy, whose husband, Robert, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, can count on life insurance worth two years’ salary, up to $100,000. Supplemental insurance that her husband had purchased will increase that benefit to $1 million. Cantor is also offering health insurance to employees’ families for one year. That stands in contrast to the benefits of the second widow, Mary Jean O’Leary, whose husband, Gerald, worked as a chef in the Cantor Fitzgerald corporate dining room. Her husband had no life insurance from the company that operated the cafeteria, Forte Food Services. And her only communication from Forte since September 11 has been an envelope containing her husband’s last paycheck.

The experiences of partners of the calamity’s gay and lesbian victims also highlight the equity issue. Take Bill Randolph, whose lover of 26 years, Wesley Mercer, is one of three missing security personnel from Morgan Stanley. Randolph was featured in an October 14 article in the New York Times just days after conservative groups had demanded that gays and lesbians not receive relief funds. The flare-up prompted New York governor George Pataki to sign an executive order covering the surviving partners of gays and lesbians under the state’s Crime Victims Board, which pays up to $30,000 for lost income and funeral costs. But because Randolph is not legally recognized as Mercer’s partner, he is not eligible for the full range of benefits married partners are entitled to — from pensions to Social Security payments.

Examples like these may represent just the tip of the iceberg. McCarthy wonders what resources the family of a non-unionized kitchen worker might have. Or the family of an illegal immigrant who washed windows at the Pentagon. Or the family of a vendor who ran a coffee-and-doughnut cart outside the towers. "There’s a huge difference in need," she says. "The task for charities is to make sure individuals hardest hit get appropriate help."

Rick Cohen, who heads the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), in Washington, DC, agrees. He recognizes that charities cannot erase in death the inequities people faced in life. They certainly must reach out to all families affected by the September 11 cataclysm; but when calculating aid, charitable groups cannot ignore inequities among the victims. "All families are hurting," he explains, "yet one family might be more disadvantaged already, and their needs are greater." The issue, he admits, is unsettling when applied to human tragedy. Unfortunately, discomfort doesn’t remove the task at hand. "It’s the job of charities to help those most in need," he says. "They must think about how the use of their resources can assuage the inequitable circumstances of people who are equally affected by disaster."

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Issue Date: November 8 - 15, 2001

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