Message in a Bottle

In the United States of 2020, millions are desperate for help, and they’re forced to compete for scraps from Twitter philanthropists.

Photo taken in Ternopil, Ukraine Roman Krykh / EyeEm.

“What would you do if I dm’ed you?” tweeted philanthropist Bill Pulte on June 12.

By then, the coronavirus pandemic had been ravaging the United States for three months. The previous day, the Department of Labor had announced that more than one in five people in the American workforce were either receiving unemployment insurance or had applied for it. Earlier that week, the Census Bureau had reported that fourteen million American children were not getting enough to eat.

“I’d be forever grateful considering my current condition,” replied a woman in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“I would be ecstatic as I just lost my job due to the covid pandemic and I am quite worried on what I will do next for a career,” replied a man in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Later that day, Pulte posted a selfie of a woman from South Carolina, beaming in the driver’s seat of her car, showing off a $7,500 check from Team Pulte LLC. In previous tweets, the woman had said that if she won one of Pulte’s lotteries, she’d use the money to pay rent, fix her car and computer, and pay off debts.

The self-proclaimed “inventor of Twitter philanthropy,” Bill Pulte is the grandson of billionaire home developer William J. Pulte and the CEO of private equity firm Pulte Capital Partners. In the past two years, he has gained notoriety by giving his money away on Twitter — to the tune, he claims, of nearly half a million dollars so far.

“If you’re dying of cancer, if your teeth are falling out, if your son just committed suicide after being in Afghanistan, Bill Pulte is your best friend,” Pulte told reporters last year. His selection process is mysterious, but he issues frequent reminders that, in order to be eligible for his sweepstakes, people must follow him on Twitter. He has more than three million followers. He calls his method “twenty-first-century charity.”

If there’s anything that substantiates the allegation that the United States is a failed state, it is Bill Pulte’s Twitter mentions. To read them is to grasp the cruelty and irrationality of American capitalism.

For five full decades, the nation has undergone a systematic, large-scale upward redistribution of wealth. Meanwhile, for reasons ranging from public relations to personal gratification and absolution, the rich are occasionally obliged to engage in a little charity, which is acceptable to them so long as it is in the amount and to the beneficiary of their choosing. Public records reveal that Bill Pulte donates exclusively to Republican candidates — a bleeding heart in the streets, a fiscal conservative in the sheets.

Disquieting in ordinary times, the spectacle of Twitter philanthropy is bone-chilling during the COVID-19 crisis, when an uneven and insufficient government economic response has left tens of millions of people high and dry.

“I’m going give someone random who retweets this tweet $10,000 because it’s my birthday and I feel like being nice (you have to be following me so I can dm you if you win),” Pulte tweeted in late May, as more than twenty million Americans reported that they were unemployed. His solicitations, adorned with smiley-face and heart emojis, were retweeted hundreds of thousands of times.

In the replies, people posted GIFs of flickering birthday candles atop picture-perfect birthday cakes, accompanied by recitations of their problems: unemployment insurance hasn’t come through and the power is about to be shut off; they need help covering unaffordable car repairs so they can make it to a high-risk job that offers no hazard pay; and so on.

“I will pick The $10,000 Winner in 72 hours on a live stream,” the Twitter philanthropist promised. “And thank you for saying ‘Happy Birthday Pulte’, I see you, and it is making me feel so good!”

Down and Out in Jupiter

“He annoys me,” says Karin Smith of Jupiter, Florida, adding that she hates seeing people compete for scraps from Bill Pulte and other social media philanthropists who have cropped up in his image.

Why, then, did I come across her in Bill Pulte’s mentions, where she divulged that she is unemployed due to the pandemic and on the verge of eviction? “Because what happens is other people are watching,” Smith says. “I’ve received several hundred dollars because I have my PayPal and my Venmo in my Twitter bio. It just appears magically from people that you’ve never been involved with who just want to help.”

Smith is a fifty-year-old single mother. She moved to Florida from Pennsylvania three years ago for the health of her teenage son, who has a medical condition that is alleviated by warm weather. She has had hard luck ever since. At first, Smith was hired to teach at a college on Key West, but she lost her position when Hurricane Irma devastated the Keys. She then moved to Jupiter and took a job with the Department of Education, but she was laid off in March due to the coronavirus crisis.

For the first few months of the pandemic, Smith depleted her savings as she struggled to navigate a dysfunctional state benefits system, and even when she was able to access benefits, they weren’t enough. She was relying on $600 per week in expanded federal unemployment benefits to keep her and her son afloat through the summer. But Congress allowed these benefits to expire on August 1 without replacing them.

Smith isn’t naïve about politics, but even she was astonished when the Senate took a recess without passing a new coronavirus economic relief package. “We’re all just sitting here like, what the hell do we do?” she says. “We’re in a crisis, it’s only going to get worse, and for Congress, it’s not a priority.”

Smith’s options are bad. “Higher ed is not hiring right now,” she says. The only jobs available in her area are low-wage, high-risk jobs. If she takes one of these, she risks contracting COVID-19 — a risk that she says isn’t worth it since, as the sole earner in her household, she likely still won’t be making enough to cover rent. Jobs that pay above minimum wage are scarce, but they’re also potentially undesirable, because if she makes too much money, she will lose means-tested benefits, including state unemployment payments, food stamps, and Medicaid. Her son’s health is better now, but he’s had “million-dollar years” before, and she doesn’t want to risk a period without insurance.

“My landlord, who I thought was a nice man, told us in April that if rent was even a day late, he was going to evict us on the first day that evictions open,” says Smith. The federal eviction moratorium ended in July, and Florida’s state eviction moratorium is full of loopholes. Smith knows for a fact that evictions have been underway: she even opened up her home to a mother and daughter who were kicked to the curb.

When I spoke to Smith in late August, she was not certain she’d be able to scrape together September rent. She was looking online for a used camper van, thinking she could sell her furniture and buy one to sleep in. She’d heard that people sleeping in vehicles in the nearby Walmart parking lot weren’t being run off overnight. “This is really where my head is right now,” she said with astonishment. “Like, I’m actually contemplating moving into an old RV with my son and our cats and the dog. I’ve never even driven one, but it looks better than a tent. But where will we go to the bathroom?”

Smith, who was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and matriculated at private schools, has a doctorate in education from Harvard. Most people facing unemployment and eviction during this crisis, of course, have nothing close to that kind of pedigree. But her situation just goes to show the extent of the economic damage, says Smith.

“I know lots of people who have graduate degrees from great schools who’ve been laid off and who are panicked because they’re in their fifties and thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get a job again?’” She’s had to teach friends who work white-collar, professional jobs how to navigate unemployment and social services since the pandemic began. “I’m explaining to people like me how an EBT card works, telling them that the food bank opens at nine o’clock in the morning, but if you’re not there by five or six, there’s nothing for you.”

Smith managed to pay September rent with donations that she received from strangers through Twitter — not flamboyant philanthropists like Bill Pulte, but ordinary people who empathized with her situation. She was relieved when President Donald Trump signed a new federal eviction moratorium, but it contains no rent forgiveness and appears to merely kick the eviction can down the road. She wants to stay current on rent, or else she fears that the moment the moratorium expires, she and her son will be out on the street. “I’m breathing a little easier,” she says, “but taking nothing for granted.”

“Twitter generosity is an unexpected development in this crisis,” says Smith. She tweets about her situation in the replies of philanthropists, politicians, journalists, and even megachurch pastors. “Joel Osteen is the most useless piece of crap that you can imagine,” she says, “but the people who follow him on Twitter are actually really good people. And the people who are the brokest are often the ones most willing to help.”

Belly Up in Tulsa

In August, the twenty-two-year-old YouTube star Jimmy Donaldson, who goes by the name MrBeast, announced a crossover sweepstakes event with Bill Pulte on Twitter.

“I’m going to give 10 random people who retweet this tweet $10,000 EACH! You must be following @Pulte and me so we can dm you if you win $10,000! Ends in 72 hours, will show proof.” He added by way of an explanation, “With everything going on we thought it would be fun to help some people!”

The tweet received more than 630,000 retweets 50,000 replies. Buried in this avalanche was one reply from Jaxon Chaney. “I could really use your help,” it said. “I’m a single mother & I was displaced due to COVID. I was living off savings but I’ve recently run out & had to place my son with a family member because I’m about to get evicted.”

Chaney, a nineteen-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, gave birth to her son, Ezra, in February. When the crisis hit, she was living outside of San Diego with her twenty-year-old boyfriend, Steven Bonilla. “I had everything planned out to have a job after I recovered from having Ezra,” says Chaney, who was in the process of being hired at Sam’s Club and was hoping to start working at the end of March.

But when the pandemic hit, the plan went belly up. Chaney is immunocompromised. Due to a blood disorder, a common cold can put her out of commission for weeks. Frightened that COVID-19 could kill her, she began to question the wisdom of working at Sam’s Club. Ultimately, she had no choice in the matter, she says, as the company was flooded with newly unemployed applicants who could start at the drop of a hat. A few weeks into the pandemic, she stopped hearing from Sam’s Club altogether.

Meanwhile, Bonilla stopped getting hired to work freelance construction for a company that builds hospitals all over the state. They each received a $1,200 stimulus check, which Chaney calls “cute,” but the money quickly vanished. Though both have applied, neither has been able to successfully prove eligibility and collect unemployment benefits.

“When the pandemic started, he and I only had $110 to stockpile food,” says Chaney. Desperate, she started a GoFundMe and made a post about her situation on Twitter. A friend covered the cost of promoting that tweet so it would appear in the feeds of people living in the San Diego area. She went to bed with $300, feeling relieved. She woke up with $1,600 and nearly cried tears of joy.

The donations they received from Twitter covered basic necessities, but nothing else. Chaney and Bonilla stayed indoors with their newborn and subsisted mostly on canned food until late April, when they packed their possessions in their car and drove to Tulsa. They were drawn by the cheap cost of living, the comparatively low rates of COVID-19 infection, and word of an available apartment passed on by members of Chaney’s family.

When Chaney and Bonilla arrived in Tulsa, they learned that they needed to quarantine in a motel for fourteen days before they could go to the apartment rental office and complete the necessary paperwork. They had to pay for the motel themselves. “That took most of our money that we would have put down for the apartment,” Chaney says. They sold their car, but it still wasn’t enough for a successful move-in.

They briefly moved in with Chaney’s mother, but their already-strained relationship buckled under the pressure of the situation. They moved out when Bonilla, who had started working at a Macy’s distribution center and as a driver for DoorDash, was able to afford a new apartment for them, but their time there was short-lived. Bonilla began to learn of active coronavirus cases in the Macy’s warehouse where he worked. Afraid of infecting Chaney, he quit. Driving for DoorDash wasn’t enough to cover the next month’s rent.

When I spoke to Chaney in late August, her mother was looking after Ezra while Chaney and Bonilla slept on friends’ couches, separately. They try not to spend too much time together, since Bonilla’s work leaves him highly exposed to the virus. “You could say it has taken a toll on our family dynamic,” says Chaney. By summer’s end, she and Bonilla were no longer in a relationship, though they planned to try living together when they could afford it again.

Chaney says the entire crisis has left her isolated and depressed. The only bright spot has been the donations and encouragement she has gotten from people online. “I’ve never received that type of support to this day from anyone in my life at all,” she says of the people who contributed money after seeing the tweet she promoted before she left California. “They were so nice. I still talk to some of those people today, and they consistently check on me and my son.” Several people who donated to her told her that they had once been in her situation, as young parents with no means of self-sufficiency and nobody to turn to.

As grateful as she is for compassionate strangers, Chaney is equally contemptuous of the political establishment. In her view, people shouldn’t have to appeal to the generosity of social media philanthropists — or, more reliably, ordinary people who happen across their digital message in a bottle.

“I feel like they could have prevented the impact of this, but they didn’t, because they didn’t care,” Chaney says. “How could you allow millions of people to suffer like this and then make them pay taxes? Like, what are the taxes for?”

“That just doesn’t sit right with my spirit,” she says. “I think it’s a crime.”