Are the 9/11 Charities Giving Enough?

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Dr. Bernadine Healy, left, at a House subcommittee hearing on the use of contributions

Elizabeth McLaughlin is exhausted. She lost her husband in the September 11th attacks, and she’s spent the past two months trying to control her grief while caring for their nine-month-old son. Wednesday, the Pelham, New York resident couldn’t contain her tears any longer. Appearing before a House subcommittee, she cried as she described the 18-page spreadsheet she’s maintaining at the request of the aid agencies she’s asked for help. "I don't think contributors to the various September 11th funds thought that their donations would be caught up in so much red tape and become a source of frustration to families," she told the assembled lawmakers.

There’s an awful lot of money floating around in the wake of the September 11th attacks, much of it pledged by heartbroken Americans hoping to do something to help those who lost family in the tragedies. Most estimates put the total funds raised at more than $1 billion, a figure so large it seems to guarantee security for everyone who’s suffered a loss in the attacks. So why is it virtually impossible for anyone to get the aid they so desperately need?

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The answer is as all-American as the impulse that drove people to contribute in the first place: Bureaucracy. Simply put, there is no one person or office with overarching control over the charities or the money, and as a result turf wars and inter-agency politics have overshadowed the purpose of the funds, which is, of course, to help families in need. Critics and observers note that streamlining the charities’ bookkeeping operation would not only expedite disbursement of funds, it might also quell unease among Americans who want to give — but who are worried about where their money is actually headed. Is the money in the September 11th funds going to families of the dead and injured, or is it, as some fear, being tucked away for future, unspecified purposes?

The role of the Red Cross

The Red Cross, one of America’s most venerable charities sits in the crosshairs of this debate. Bernadine Healy, who was director of the organization until her tearful, abrupt and coerced resignation last week, was called before an angry House committee this week to explain the organization’s operations. The Red Cross’s Liberty Fund, established in the wake of the terror attacks, is under fire from indignant lawmakers and angry donors. It turns out that only part of the fund — which stands at nearly $550 million, ostensibly earmarked for the families of those who died September 11th — will actually reach those family members. Instead, Red Cross officials revealed this week, nearly half ($264 million) of that money will be redirected into other projects, including a slush fund to be used in the case of future terrorist attacks. Healy insists there was no intention to mislead donors, and that the goal was always to keep some of the contributions on hand for "future critical priorities." To date, the Red Cross has paid out $121 million directly to victims’ families, most of it in the form of cash for the payment of basic living expenses.

There does appear to be some good news; recent scrutiny and rising public frustration has prompted action in one case, at least. A chunk of the Twin Towers Fund, which currently stands at $82 million, will be doled out before Thanksgiving, according to outgoing New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Hizzoner wants to give half of it to 850 families of government employees (firefighters, police, transit workers) who lost their lives September 11th. According to mayoral estimates, each family stands to receive $100,000. Giuliani, who will oversee the fund after he leaves office in January, told reporters Wednesday he needs more time to design an "equitable way to distribute" the remaining half of the fund.