An 82-year-old Walmart cashier is getting to retire after TikTok users raised more than $100,000 to make that possible.
If that sentence doesn’t seem several kinds of wrong to you, I don’t know what to say.
Butch Marion, the 82-year-old in question, is not the first elderly Walmart employee to be able to retire thanks to TikTok donations. It’s a whole damn trend. Carmen Kelly, another 82-year-old who had $50 in her bank account when a Walmart customer asked her why an elderly woman with a cane was working as a greeter, came before him as a recipient of $120,000 in fundraising. Nola Carpenter, 81, retired after a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $180,000. Marion, who spent 10 years in the Navy, was excited that the recent GoFundMe a TikToker set up for him would allow him to “go to Florida and see my kids,” and “enjoy my last 10 or 12 years I’ve got.”
Kelly had intended to retire when she moved to Arizona in 2004, but went back to work due to medical debt. She was hoping to be able to buy a home near her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Carpenter didn’t think she’d be able to retire after around $110,000 in fundraising, because she still needed more to pay off her mortgage—when another $70,000 or so in donations came in, that did it for her.
“It was awesome,” a local news reporter said of the scene as Butch Marion walked out of Walmart on his last day and was given a check for $108,682.85. He couldn’t stop raving about it: “So emotional, so cool, so genuine.”
The TikTok part is new, but the “inspirational” crowdfunding campaign or big donation to allow a beleaguered worker to have a minimal quality of life has a longer history. And it’s always been nauseating. The recipient can’t just be any old low-wage worker. They have to be conspicuously virtuous in some way. Still working at 80. Walking 20 miles to a new job. Or 12 miles each way for months. Or 21 miles. Just a few years ago, the new car for someone walking a ridiculous distance to work was what the TikTok Walmart retiree is in recent months.
Then there are the campaigns to pay off school lunch debt. An 8-year-old boy sells keychains to pay off the lunch debt for his school, and yeah, that child is praiseworthy—but we should be talking about the existence of school lunch debt. The concept of school lunch debt, which is on the rise after Congress let free school lunch for all lapse.
And of course it’s lovely that the handful of workers who benefit from these viral campaigns get to retire, or have reliable transportation to their jobs. But celebrating those isolated events misses the point that 82-year-olds shouldn’t be on their feet eight hours a day working at Walmart because it’s their only financial option. People shouldn’t be walking more than 10 miles to then work all day and walk back home because they can’t afford a car and there’s no reliable public transit.
These are signs of a broken system and reminders of how many people are not getting that successful crowdfunding campaign, not joyous occasions to be celebrated.
We see these signs everywhere, if we’re paying attention. In the very words “school lunch debt.” In the modest things that families celebrated being able to provide for their children during the six months of expanded child tax credit payments, things like special help for an autistic child or a puppy to comfort a newly orphaned one. Food was the top use of those checks, followed by utility payments.
Our seniors should be able to retire with dignity. Our workers should have access to reliable public transit or the money to live within actual walking distance of their jobs or buy a reliable car. Our children should be fed. The moments when these things happen shouldn’t be headlines and hashtags.