How Blood-Plasma Companies Target the Poorest Americans

How Blood-Plasma Companies Target the Poorest Americans

The industry’s business model depends on there being plenty of people who need cash quickly.


Medicaid, housing subsidies, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—these are some of the things that make up the backbone of the U.S.’s social safety net. And the federal government, guided by President Trump’s proposed budget for 2019, is seeking to make deep cuts to all three of them.

Yet while this threatens the government’s social safety net, one of a different kind continues to expand. Americans are flooding into the country’s blood-plasma donation centers in greater numbers than ever before, seeking to make up for low wages or small benefits checks, or even as their only source of cash income during a spell of extreme poverty. Their blood plasma—which historically has been collected disproportionately in the country’s poorest communities—is fueling a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry.


The Number of Annual Plasma Donations in the U.S., from 1999 to 2016

This all has been a boon for the industry. Over a decade, the number of donations—really, “sales” is a more accurate noun—in America tripled, from 12 million per year in 2006 to 38 million per year in 2016, according to the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade group. The number of donation centers in the U.S. has more than doubled to meet demand, from fewer than 300 sites in 2005to over 600 today. Global sales jumped from $5 billion in 2000 to $20 billion in 2015, and are expected to keep growing at a rapid clip well into the next decade.


It does seem there is a place for compensated plasma donation in the U.S., in some form—it is not inherently morally objectionable. But what’s concerning is the extent to which many “voluntary” donations are anything but, with people depending on them in the absence of an adequate social safety net. And as that social safety net gets weaker, the plasma industry is only getting stronger.


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