Making ends meet was a constant struggle for Kevin Ford, a Las Vegas fast-food worker. Buying a house wasn’t even on the table, as he worked two jobs to cover his monthly rent and cost of living.
Between working at the Burger King at Harry Reid International Airport and making deliveries for UberEats and DoorDash, he was financially and physically stretched.
“I was driving so I can pay my rent and pay off my bills,” Ford, 56, told MarketWatch in an interview. “I’ve never had money before.”
But a viral TikTok video, and a clever move by his adult daughter to channel the interest in Ford into a GoFundMe campaign, has turned his life around — giving him the financial cushion he never had.
Through the nearly $450,000 the campaign had raised, Ford, a single father, finally had enough money to put down on a home of his own in December, and has begun tucking away funds toward his retirement. And the donations are still coming in.
“It brought me to a place where I feel legit, and I’ve never felt that way before,” Ford said. “I’m still working, and I don’t know when I’ll retire … but now, I can see retirement. I couldn’t see it before; I thought I’d be working forever.”
He put down “a good chunk of money” to the tune of $177,000 on a single-family home in Pahrump, Nev., bringing his monthly housing payment — which now includes a mortgage, property taxes and insurance — down by $400, to $1,200 per month. A typical home in the city is valued at $328,945, according to Zillow data.
The story of strangers online coming together to help Ford reflects the profound impact social-media virality can have on people’s generosity.
It’s also a stark reminder of how unfeasible it often is for the average American to buy a home today.
For a typical family making a median income of $76,621, affording a median-priced home at $374,167 would mean spending nearly 45% of its income on housing, according to the Atlanta Fed’s Home Ownership Affordability Monitor. Families whose housing costs exceed 30% of their income are considered “cost burdened,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Meanwhile, about 2% of the total U.S. workforce earns less than $10 an hour, and 12% — translating to 18 million people — earns less than $15 an hour. Across the country, the minimum wage ranges from the federal hourly minimum of $7.25 still used by 20 states to as high as $16.28 in Washington state and around $20 in some Washington cities.
In Nevada, where Ford lives, the minimum wage is $10.25 for workers who receive health benefits and $11.25 for workers who don’t.
Even though half of U.S. states will increase their minimum wage in 2024, “American workers continue to feel stressed about their finances and are concerned about keeping up with the cost of living,” Lorna Sabbia, the head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America, said in a statement about survey results released this past fall.
In 2023, a full-time worker would need to earn an hourly wage of $28.58 on average to afford even a modest two-bedroom rental in the U.S., according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Homeownership is even farther out of reach for many Americans: Affording a median-priced home, the cost of which could run up to $3,000 a month when including insurance and taxes, would require an annual income of $117,100, Harvard University researchers estimated last year.
Though Ford’s story shows how the power of empathy helped him achieve his financial goals, there’s an “obvious dark cloud” over the situation, Kyle K. Moore, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told MarketWatch.
“We have a man who worked for nearly three decades and did not have enough to afford what was once considered a staple of basic economic health and well-being: a home,” Moore said. “If we still consider homeownership to be part of the American dream, then that’s a market failure — and, more importantly, a policy failure.”
‘It truly saved my life’
Ford, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1972, said that going through a divorce a few years ago compounded his tough financial situation.
Despite the emotional distress he experienced, he never missed a day of work at Burger King
or the other outlets of HMSHost, a company that operates airport food-service options, where he worked. He even ramped up driving for delivery services to pay the bills.
As Ford raised his four daughters, the health insurance that came with working for HMSHost, and as part of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, helped him get through those years. Ford also has access to a 401(k) retirement-savings plan, among other benefits, through his union.
After his daughters left home and he got divorced, Ford felt lonely and struggled to cope, he said. “I had bills left over, so I started driving UberEats and DoorDash, and I was just driving on my days off,” he said. “I would get out of work and I would drive. I was just depressed, and trying to make ends meet for myself and be alone for the first time.”
At the time, Ford was paying $1,600 in rent. His monthly earnings of about $1,100 wouldn’t be enough to cover it, so he would supplement those wages with about $500 through the delivery apps.
Feeling lonely and working day and night were taking a toll on him. “I just didn’t really have a reason to exist, aside from paying the bills, and I just wanted to fade away,” he said. But he pulled through.
“For workers like Kevin Ford, the situation is dire and has been dire for some time,” said Moore, the EPI economist.
“Workers earning at and around the minimum wage have found it increasingly difficult to afford housing at all for decades as wages have failed to keep up with the increasing cost of living, much less save enough for a down payment on a home or squirrel away enough for a decent retirement,” Moore added.
In June 2022, Ford posted a video of himself receiving a goody bag for his nearly three decades of service at the restaurant. Even though he hadn’t missed a day of work in all those years, he only received a cup, some candies and some pens for his effort and dedication. The video quickly went viral, with more than 18,000 likes.
“This has to be a joke,” one user commented. “This is insulting, [in my opinion].”
Another wrote that Ford “deserves so much more” and that the goody bag was a “slap in the face.”
His daughter Seryna saw an opportunity to direct that interest toward helping her father, and set up a GoFundMe page to raise donations.
“My dad continues to work there, because though he does look young, he is coming up on retirement age and leaving would cost him his retirement,” she wrote on his campaign page. “In no way are we asking for money or is he expecting any money but if anyone feels like blessing him he would love to visit his grandchildren.”
Contributions to the campaign as of Friday exceeded $449,000, from nearly 15,000 donations.
“This is a blessing — it’s a dream come true,” Ford said. “It basically saved my life.”
Ford will get to keep approximately $432,000, after GoFundMe deducts its standard transaction fee of 2.9% and $0.30 per donation.
“Mr. Ford’s story is a powerful example of what help can do when a community comes together, with over 14,000 donors showing their support,” a spokesperson told MarketWatch.
“Every day on the platform we see the generosity of people from all over the globe, which is why GoFundMe is designed to deliver the most amount of money to the people and causes that need them,” the spokesperson added. “We are in awe of our community’s kindness and empathy, especially in moments like this. We wish Mr. Ford the best in his new home.”
‘Viral crowdfunding is not a policy solution’
Ford has also tried to pay the kindness forward. If he’s in line and spots a single mother or someone struggling to pay for their food or groceries, he offers to pitch in, he said. He even helped Seryna pay for her own house, and gave some money to his grandkids.
Moore noted that Ford passing on some of the donations to his daughter is “something Black households in particular find it difficult to do, given their lack of wealth relative to white households.” The median net worth of Black households was $27,100 in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center, compared with $250,400 for white households.
Ultimately, “viral crowdfunding is not a policy solution to our housing-affordability crisis,” Moore said. “That’s a bit like guiding folks towards the lottery as financial advice.”
Ford’s reliance on crowdfunding to achieve homeownership after working nearly an entire career, Moore added, “is evidence that this system does not work for people in his position, and that it will not work without policy intervention.”
Donations aside, reading messages from people appreciating his hard work also gave him joy, Ford said. “People talk about the monetary thing, the GoFundMe, but what saved me was reading those comments and emails and people talking about how I was an inspiration to them,” he said. “It just lifted me up, and it truly saved my life.”
“Doing things for somebody who’s a perfect stranger … I guess they see in me their brother, their uncle, their dad, their friend,” he added. “It’s something so beautiful and absolutely pure.”
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