Figuring Out How to Compensate Victims After Devastating Tragedies

But if the government is out, everyday donors aren’t. The $60 million that Feinberg administered in Boston was all private money, which gave him license to disperse it any way he saw fit. Funds sprung up to assist victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. Obama persuaded BP to set aside $20 billion for businesses and communities harmed by the oil spill after its Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010. Feinberg was involved in each of those efforts.

All of this raises fundamental questions of fairness, he says. On one hand, the 9/11 payout was an expression of political sentiment; few Americans objected. And as far as private money goes, well, that’s the marketplace in action. Donors are free to send checks in one case and not another, just like they’re free to choose between the Jerry Lewis telethon and the March of Dimes. On the other hand is the unsettling feeling that human life ends up being valued in all manner of disparate ways, based on publicity, geography, the nature of the crime, and the identities of the victims. “It’s horrible,” Feinberg says. A woman who lost a spouse in the Boston bombings will receive more than $2 million. A family who lost a child at Sandy Hook Elementary will see less than $300,000. Meanwhile, the families of African-American children killed by stray bullets on the streets of Chicago, Washington, New Orleans, and elsewhere may not be able to cover the cost of the funeral.

National Journal has a really great piece about how funds are distributed to victims of tragedy, and the expert people like to call up to figure that out: Ken Feinberg, who has administered or provided advice on how to dole out funds for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Newtown shooting, and the BP oil spill. It’s also a very good examination of when we give money, and when we don’t (the 13 killed and 32 wounded at the Fort Hood shooting have seen no compensation, nor have many other victims of tragic crimes, like children who are killed by stray bullets).