THE NEEDIEST CASES FUND
In 1918, as soldiers returned from war and New York navigated a pandemic, readers opened their wallets. In 2020, the generosity continues.
It was a bad year that brought a new question, one familiar today: how to ask for more from people who have lost so much.
The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund was only in its sixth year, born in 1912 after the newspaper’s publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, encountered a man who asked for help. Mr. Ochs had an idea, sent a reporter out to dig, and The Hundred Neediest Cases in New York was created. “Unadorned stories of the plight of the individuals and families suffering from temporary misfortune” began appearing in The Times during the holiday season.
Its early years were a success. But December 1918 found New York a much, much different city. An influenza epidemic had killed more than 20,000 in the city and had ravaged neighborhoods, tenements and families. The illness rewrote rules around shopping, subways and public gatherings, and rattled the economy.
In this changed city, soldiers and sailors limped home from the battlefields of World War I with crippling wounds — some visible, some not.
The 1918 campaign seemed to anticipate a dip in donations by readers weary of war and illness, and leaned into those realities in its appeal.
“More than ever in the past year has America become a nation of producers,” The Times wrote on Dec. 15, 1918, “where every one is doing something, but there are still men who because of illness or injury or old age, women and children who because of the death or sickness of the wage earner of the family, are unable to make their own way, are even now in the most urgent need of relief.”
The question of whether New Yorkers would rise to the occasion would be answered one way or the other in the scant days left in the year.
One hundred and two years later, in 2020, the call comes again at a challenging time. The coronavirus has created new wells of need that can seem too large for an individual to address. If there were a year to skip charitable giving, 2020 would seem, like 1918 and others since, to be a candidate.
But the results say otherwise.
In past years, The Fund has responded to 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy by creating separate campaigns specific to those crises, alongside the annual campaign. Readers gave more than $1.6 million to help hurricane victims and more than $50 million for the 9/11 fund.
The Neediest Cases campaign has so far raised over $5 million for 10 organizations in its annual campaign. One new contributor in 2020 is Karen Tong, 14, of East Brunswick, N.J. She received a Christmas gift from an aunt, Brenda Tong, that came with a question: Would you like to give a portion to charity?
Karen said yes, and asked that $50 go to The Neediest Cases Fund — a charity she’d heard of at home.
“I found it online,” she said. “When I was younger, my grandparents always reminded me that not everyone was lucky enough to grow up in a nice home and have a good education and not have to worry about not having food on the table the next day.”
In 1918, readers responded to the plea for the neediest through donations as small as a dollar. Some donors sought solace in their losses that year by giving to one of the 100 cases highlighted in the campaign, which were each numbered and assigned a simple headline (“Two Homeless Brothers,” “Seven People, Two Dollars.”)
“May I send this small gift for Case 28?” one woman wrote to The Times. “I have just lost my 9-months-old baby with influenza-pneumonia, and I know the ache in that poor woman’s heart.”
In the end, the campaign was a huge success. By the end of 1918, the fund had raised more than enough to fund the 100 cases it set out to, “and insures care and the necessities of life for a year for nearly one hundred additional cases,” The Times reported on Dec. 31, 1918.
“It is likely that the present fund will be the greatest by a large margin that has ever been raised for this work,” The Times wrote. “That New Yorkers have responded so readily and so satisfactorily to this appeal is particularly creditable, in view of the strain to which most purses have been subject this year.”
One of those contributions, far from New York, sounds familiar a century later, coming, like Karen’s $50, from a child, a 12-year-old boy named Thomas Bragg Gunter from Rosebud, Texas.
“I see by your paper of the 18th that the people respond more freely for little girls of the 100 Neediest Cases calling for help than they do for poor boys,” Thomas wrote The Times. “Father sent me a check for $10 for Christmas, which I am sending you to divide with two of the boys. This is a Christmas present for them. I will do without.”