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Rebecca Smith Headshot

Working Poor This Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is one of our most treasured national holidays. But while most of us will spend it sitting down to a sumptuous dinner in the company of our loved ones, some of us will be stocking shelves and working the shop floor. Walmart, the largest employer of low-wage workers in the United States, has decided to get a jump on Black Friday by making a treasured national holiday into Black Thursday for its employees.

Many Walmart employees who will be at home won't be able to afford that sumptuous meal, though. Walmart employees are paid so poorly that they have to depend on public assistance, to the tune of some $4 billion annually. Just last week, we were again reminded of Walmart workers' poverty when a store manager put out a food collection box in a Walmart store in Ohio--not for the homeless or the hungry out in the community, but for the hungry among Walmart's own employees. Meanwhile, Walmart's CEO's compensation package in 2012 amounted to over $28 million, according to Forbes. The company made $17 billion in profits last year.

The food collection box is just the latest in a series of incidents that illustrate just how disconnected America's corporate leaders and their policies are from the rest of us. While Walmart is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the country, McDonald's, the second largest, is a close runner-up in the Scrooge sweepstakes. McDonald's CEO received a compensation package worth $13.8 million last year. Meanwhile, McDonald's employees depend on public assistance to the tune of $1.2 billion each year. Last summer, McDonald's put out a budget calculator for its employees, advising that knowing how to budget (as opposed to getting paid decently for work) is "key to your financial freedom." But McDonald's budget calculator proved the wrong point: for the budget to balance out, it assumed that workers held a second job, that they did not pay a dime for food each month, and had no need for basics like clothes.

McDonald's followed with an extra helping of hubris in the fall, when it released a video offering helpful suggestions to its employees about how to get on public assistance. Just last week, its "McResource" website reportedly sent suggestions to its workers about how they can relieve stress in their lives. These include going to church, singing and taking at least two vacations a year. (McDonald's does not offer guidance on how its low-wage employees can afford a vacation.)

Hunger is a real and growing problem in our country. According to the nonprofit group Hunger in America, 50 million Americans go hungry each year. More than one in five are children. As Walmart and McDonald's have shown us, hunger impacts the working poor as well. Over 30 percent of households receiving food stamps had earnings in 2011, and 41 percent of all food stamp participants lived in a household with earnings.

These two mega-corporations employ around two million low-wage workers, but their CEOs have no inkling what it's like to live on the wages they pay. Worse yet, although the CEOs' enormous compensation packages can exceed the combined annual earnings of one thousand of the workers who keep their businesses humming, the employees must rely on the generosity of their co-workers and benefits paid for by the public in order to get by.

Thanksgiving is the start of a season of giving. It's not too much to expect America's largest low-wage employers to be good corporate citizens. They could start by paying their own workers a living wage.