Despite the oft-repeated claim on social media that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once received government help to pay for all of his childhood medical care and rehabilitation, that is not the true story. McConnell, who has become the face of a health care bill that threatens government assistance, came down with polio in 1944 when he was two years old. He was treated for the disease at a center in Warm Springs, GA, that had originally been founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a famous victim of the crippling disease.
When McConnell was struck by polio it was a full decade before the polio vaccine was developed. While there was no prevention, there was, however, care and rehabilitation for victims of the disease. The treatment center had been created in 1937 and funded with money raised by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis which was a nonprofit organization led by FDR’s former law partner, Basil O’Connor.
Not long after the creation of the foundation, comedian Eddie Cantor came up with the idea for “The March of Dimes” campaign in order to encourage citizens to contribute at least one dime to the cause. Using radio broadcasts and the celebration of the president’s Birthday Ball to publicize the effort, the results were overwhelming. Over 80,000 letters that contained dimes and dollar bills flooded the White House mailroom, and by the eve of FDR’s birthday on January 29, 1938, the donation tally stood at $268,000.
According to David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Polio: An American Story,” there was no taxpayer or government money involved in the charity at all. Rather, he says, “This was millions of Americans donating a dime or a quarter to a fully private charity,” adding that “Fighting polio was a story of voluntarism,” he said, “not government involvement.” The foundation was, according to Oshinsky, completely nonpartisan, with all the money that was spent on research – including millions of dollars spent on Jonas Salk’s 1954 polio vaccine trial – coming from donations made by private citizens.
According to Oshinsky, The March of Dimes revolutionized charity giving. Oshinsky cites McConnell as only one of thousands of polio-stricken children who were treated free of charge, and he credits the March of Dimes and their smart advertising campaign for the success of the foundation.
McConnell – who, as the face of a controversial Republican health care bill that would cut government spending on medical care – makes a tempting target for the claim that he was once the recipient of government aid. But while liberal sites such as Occupy Democrats and Death and Taxes have promoted the idea, it has been proven that he was not.
According to University of Chicago sociology professor Elisabeth Clemens, this innaccuracy may well be the result of a misunderstanding about the role of public money and the incorrect idea that money donated by members of the public to private organizations is the same thing as taxpayer supported government programs. Oshinsky clarifies this further by saying, “Although Roosevelt, who suffered himself from polio, used his name and popularity to raise money for the treatment center, it did not receive federal dollars.”