The Kentucky Fried Chicken where Joseph Barrera works stands at a busy intersection in the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, down the street from some auto body shops, a few rice-and-beans joints and a White Castle. Until the day Barrera found himself mopping up the grease that had spewed all over the restaurant's basement, he was confident that his $7.25-an-hour job represented the beginning of a career that would lead him out of the neighborhood and into a middle-class life.
He believed KFC's website, which claimed that the company helped workers go from "finger lickin' good to GREAT!" He believed his manager and boss, who assured him that if things went well, he'd get a promotion and a raise and would eventually earn an opportunity to take over his own restaurant. And he believed his father and mother and grandmother and uncle and everyone else who had ever told him that if he worked hard and saved money, he'd get ahead.
Then came the explosion of the grease trap, a machine that separates grease from the drainage that flows into the sewers. Grease splattered all over the basement floor and walls; a manager asked Barrera to clean up the mess. Barrera agreed, figuring that he'd prove himself worthy of a raise. The company had recently promoted him to shift supervisor, adding to his responsibilities. But Barrera was still waiting for the extra pay that was supposed to come with the new title. He spent two days scrubbing down the basement with ammonia and bleach, determined to show his boss that he deserved more than what he was making. But the raise never came.
Barrera is a wiry, restless 22-year-old who belongs to the fastest-growing cohort of American workers -- people who go to work every day but earn so little that the government classifies them as poor. His experience at KFC underscores a reality faced by millions of Americans: Despite the American truism about hard work being the key to success, more and more working people are effectively trapped in poverty-wage jobs with few opportunities for advancement.
"People often talk about how we're transitioning to a new economy," said Dorian Warren, a professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies low-wage work. "But we're there already. And it's a very different type of economy than what we had in the immediate post-war period, when there were middle-class jobs, there were job ladders that people could move up within a company or an industry. Those days are over."
By the government's definition, a married person with two kids who lives on $23,283 a year or less is poor. By that standard, someone who works full time but earns $10.60 an hour can be considered working poor, a classification that describes about 10 million Americans. The working poor cook burgers, deliver pizzas, fold shirts, help people pick out shoes, cut grass, answer phones, move boxes in warehouses, organize items on shelves, and take care of children and the elderly. Contrary to the outdated image of the neighborhood kid hustling for "pin money" at the local McDonald's, low-wage workers are mostly adults, not teenagers. Few receive health insurance or other employee benefits, and the government often subsidizes their wages, providing them with food stamps and other entitlements.
During the course of the downturn now known as the Great Recession, which saw the official unemployment rate peak at 10 percent, the economy lost more than 8 million jobs. Sixty percent of those jobs paid between about $14 and $21 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project.
In the 39 months since the job market hit bottom in February 2010, the economy has added nearly 5.9 million jobs, while the unemployment rate has dropped to 7.6 percent. But as of last summer, around 60 percent of those new jobs paid about $14 per hour or less, NELP found.
In other words, since the recession officially ended, lower-wage jobs have grown nearly three times faster than jobs that pay more.
While more and more Americans try to get by on these wages, many of the major employers of low-wage workers are reaping big profits. Between 2007 and 2011, the corporation that owns KFC saw its profits rise by 45 percent. McDonald's had an even better run, posting a 130 percent profit surge in the same period.
For decades, many of these corporations have justified their wages by portraying their job offerings as stepping stones to the middle class. But labor economists and other scholars have often questioned the validity of that premise, and some argue that it's more hollow now than ever.
In recent months, the plight of low-wage workers has prompted calls for reform from a number of prominent economists and political leaders, including the president. In his State of the Union speech in Feburary, President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.
"Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty," he said.
Political opponents and some business leaders protested that businesses would have to lay off workers in order to absorb the higher labor costs. At the same time, some liberals raised concerns that the president's proposal didn't go far enough, suggesting that workers would need at least $15 an hour to escape poverty.
For Barrera, escaping poverty would mean moving out of the windowless room in his uncle's basement, where he's been living free of charge for nearly a year. "Look at that," he said one recent day as he showed a reporter around the space, flicking his hand in embarrassment at a threadbare "Scarface" pillowcase. "I've had that since I was in high school."
He pointed to the South American blanket on his bed. "Lama hair is the warmest," he explained. Barrera's parents are Ecuadorian immigrants, and there were nights in the unheated basement when he felt very grateful for the traditional wisdom of the Andes.
The room smelled of mold and dampness. There were no closets and no television. Barrera sold his TV to a friend. He said he rarely goes out and hasn't been on a date in a long time. He held up his iPhone. "This is my only form of entertainment," he said, explaining that his grandmother bought it for him using funds she saved as the owner of a roadside restaurant in Ecuador.
"It's embarrassing to say she takes care of me," he said, his voice rising. "It should be the other way around. It makes me feel like I'm not a man."
Joseph Barrera, a KFC worker, lives in a windowless room in his uncle's basement.
'JUST TO BE AHEAD'
Barrera grew up poor, but for a brief time in his childhood, his family seemed to have a shot at joining the middle class. In the late '90s, his father, one of 12 children, managed to rise to a managerial position at a Brooklyn supermarket. He saved enough money to put down a mortgage on a home. A few years later, Barrera tested into Brooklyn Tech, one of the best public schools in New York.
Barrera loved computers, cars and sophisticated machines of all kinds. He hoped to become a high-tech mechanic or an engineer. But then his father fell behind on his mortgage payments and bought a laundromat in a gamble to keep the family afloat. The business folded after a few months. At the time, Barrera was working after school at a high-end catering place for "decent money." His parents were fighting over bills, so he got a second catering job to help his mom keep the lights on.
"Little by little I stopped going to school," he said.
By 17 he was working full time, hoping to move into his own apartment. For a while he juggled three jobs, including the night shift at a valet agency on Long Island. He drove rich kids' cars -- Porsches, BMWs, Lamborghinis.
"I got a glimpse of a lifestyle that I could never reach," he said.
Still, on good nights he could clear $100 in tips. He put down a $3,000 payment on his own Mitsubishi Lancer GTS with 18-inch rims, power steering, and anti-lock brakes.
That summer, after late shifts at a steakhouse, he'd relieve his stress by blowing past the other cars on the Long Island Expressway. Occasionally another young driver would pull alongside him and give him a stare, and Barrera would flash his hand at the road to signal that he wanted to race. Then he'd blast the horn three times and tear off into the night.
There was no finish line. "The point was just to be ahead," he said.
Barrera took pride in the fact that he never lost control of the wheel while causing at least two of his challengers to crash. But his aggressiveness got him in trouble with the cops, and he eventually lost the valet job because he couldn't pay off the fines on his license.
For months after that, he wondered whether he'd blown the best chance he'd ever have to pull himself out of poverty. Despite his family's good years in the '90s, he didn't know anyone who'd recovered after falling into a life of "poverty and depression."
He spent most of his time on his laptop, surfing the Internet and reading about the stock market. He did odd jobs as a janitor and an off-the-books car mechanic. After about two years of this, his mother kicked him out of the house. He moved into the windowless room in his uncle's basement and applied for work at the KFC.
Barrera informed the manager that he'd worked at fast-food restaurants before and felt he deserved $9 an hour based on his experience.
"He offered $7.25," Barrera recalled. " I saw a look on his face, like, if I kept asking for $9, there wasn't going to be a job for me."
He took his place behind the counter the following week.
Barrera worked hard and was quick on his feet, and after just three months his boss promoted him to shift supervisor. Barrera spent $114 of his own money on a food preparation certificate that made him eligible for the expanded role.
In addition to working the cash register, he was now responsible for preparing pot pies and biscuits, baking cookies, and changing the syrup in the soda machine. He also answered the phone, handled transactions for Spanish-speaking customers, unpacked boxes, arranged food in the freezer and on the shelves, closed the restaurant three or four nights a week, and checked that the money in the registers matched up with the receipts.
His managers encouraged him to discipline disgruntled workers by threatening to cut their hours, so at one point Barrera sent home an uncooperative friend without pay.
"I felt myself turning into one of them," he said.
He didn’t like that feeling, but he still believed that if he followed the path his boss had laid out for him, he'd work his way up to a salaried position as a manager.
Companies that pay low wages often try to entice workers by encouraging them to look past the immediate moment and toward the possibility of advancement. Walmart's website declares that a job at the company "opens the door to a better life" and "the chance to grow and build a career." McDonald's courts online job seekers with tales of "superstars" who climbed the company ladder. Many companies explicitly invoke the American dream in their public relations rhetoric.
The National Restaurant Association, which last year spent more than $1 million on campaign contributions and $2.7 million on lobbying, deploys the phrase as a matter of course in the pro-forma statement it sends to reporters who inquire about wages: "In addition to providing more than 13 million job opportunities, the industry also gives individuals the chance to achieve the American dream, with 80 percent of owners and managers having started their careers in entry-level positions."
The twin expectations that hard work will lead to success and that each generation will do better than the last are practically enshrined in the Constitution -- and they're personified by the unlikely figure whose portraits hang on the walls of thousands of KFC franchises around the world. Although "Colonel" Harland Sanders eventually turned himself into a popular symbol of prosperity by appropriating the white suit and black string tie of an antebellum aristocrat, the fast-food magnate grew up in a shack in rural Kentucky and dropped out of school when he was 12. Like Barrera, he had problems at home and escaped them by moving in with an uncle. Like Barrera's Ecuadorian grandmother, he opened a roadside restaurant.
Sanders had some good years as a restaurant owner, but his big break didn't come until the age of 65 when he began franchising his brand and recipes to other owners, a novel concept in the restaurant industry at the time. The strategy made him a millionaire. On KFC's career website, a short promotional video shows Sanders gazing at a beautiful sunset. "We all have to have dreams," he says in a folksy rumble.
But that's not enough, he adds. You have to "get out there and work for those dreams. For that's the only way you can achieve success."
Today, KFC belongs to the Yum! Brands corporation, which also owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. It is led by David Novak, an effusive veteran of the advertising world whose career highlights include helping invent Cool Ranch Doritos and opening thousands of KFC outlets across China. According to Forbes, Novak received a salary of nearly $1.5 million in 2011. He also earned some $19 million in stock awards and other forms of compensation, making him one of the country's best-compensated executives.
Novak attributes his success not only to his hard work, but also to his long-standing belief in the importance of recognizing the contributions of everyone on the payroll, from fellow executives to cashiers and janitors. In his memoir, he tells of getting stiffed on a tip while working at the desk of a Holiday Inn in his youth.
"I'll remember until the day I die how bad that made me feel," he writes. "It was probably my first realization about why rewarding people for a job well done is so important."
The public relations department at KFC turned down a request for an interview with Novak. In a brief email, Rick Maynard, a spokesman for the company, said, "We are proud that the franchise system of KFC restaurants provides employment and opportunities for career advancement to thousands of workers in the New York City area."
After three months as a shift supervisor, Barrera wasn't buying the career advancement story anymore. Despite his increased responsibilities, he still hadn't received the raise his boss had promised. And whenever he brought it up with management, they just told him to be patient, he says. In February, Barrera handed the key to his manager and said he wanted to return to a less stressful job at the cash register. He says the manager called him selfish and insisted that moving ahead takes time.
"That's how it works in the fast-food industry," Barrera said. "You have to just wait your turn. But that turn may never come."
The myth of American opportunity has never quite measured up to the reality, but some economists say it's harder for poor Americans to get ahead now than at any other time since World War II.
"Since about the mid- to late-1970s, what economic growth we've had has not been broadly shared," said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. "People with lots of education have done well, people at the very top of the income distribution range have done extraordinarily well, people in the middle have basically treaded water, and people at the bottom have seen their real wages -- inflation-corrected wages -- fall. And then came the recession in 2008 and things got much worse."
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a labor attorney at the National Employment Law Project in New York, acknowledged that the restaurant industry is "probably telling the truth" about most managers starting out in the kitchen or behind the cash register. The problem, she said, is that nearly all restaurant workers do non-managerial "front-line" jobs like cooking and serving. "Yes, there's opportunity for advancement," she said. "But there are only so many managers."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, the number of food preparation jobs at fast-food places and other establishments will have increased by 14 percent. Other low-wage occupations are expected to grow by as much as 70 percent. As more and more people from places like Barrera's Brooklyn neighborhood fall into those kinds of jobs, it will likely become harder for working people to lift their families out of poverty.
As Sawhill puts it: "When the rungs of the ladder are far apart, it becomes more difficult to climb the ladder."
Over the last few years, a growing number of workers and activists have been trying to raise the lowest rungs. Last fall, on Black Friday, hundreds of Walmart workers walked out of their stores, demanding decent wages and better treatment. In New York City, 200 fast-food workers from 30 restaurants walked out in solidarity, and on April 4, more than 400 fast-food employees participated in a second strike, prompting organizers to boast of breaking a fast-food record and inspiring hundreds of fast-food and retail workers in Chicago to follow suit.
In the past, labor leaders have had trouble organizing low-wage workers, in part because those jobs mostly attracted two types of employees: high school kids who didn't expect to stick around long enough to enjoy the fruits of victory, and down-and-out folks who weren't necessarily up to the challenge of a fight.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said labor leaders could draw some hope from the changes the longshore industry has seen since the early part of the 20th century. "People who did longshore work used to be the scum of the earth by definition," he says. "Longshoremen used to be drunkards and pickpockets."
That began to change during the Depression, when out-of-work farm laborers began joining the "drunkards and pickpockets" on the docks and demanding a greater share of the profits they helped produce. As their pay improved, the industry attracted even better workers, who in turn demanded better wages and eventually earned enough to send their kids to college. Longshoremen can now make $100,000 a year. Many labor organizers today hope that the fast-food and retail industries will follow a similar trajectory.
In January, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, the main group behind the April fast-food strike in New York, walked into Barrera's KFC and asked if he wanted to join a campaign for a $15 hourly wage. At first Barrera was skeptical. "I said you shouldn't sell people a dream that they can't catch," he recalls.
But he gave the organizer his phone number and over the following weeks they spoke every few days. Through his conversations with that organizer and others, he began to connect the dots between his personal struggles and the larger theme of economic injustice. "When I look at my family, it's like a vision of struggle," he said one recent afternoon. "My dad struggled, my mom struggled, my grandma struggled, and now I'm struggling. It's rigged that way. It's rigged that way to keep you down."
When Barrera first put on his KFC uniform, shown here, he didn't realize that the working poor makes up the fastest-growing cohort of workers in America.
A few weeks ago, Barrera came to work to learn that his boss had cut his hours from about 40 to 30 a week. The funds in his pocket dwindled first to $20, then to $10. He began arriving to work early and leaving late, so that he could sneak meals behind the manager's back. At one point, a cousin called and asked for help with his transmission; Barrera fixed it for $20 and a couple of bowls of soup. He still hopes to become a mechanic, but until the state reauthorizes his driver's license, he's unlikely to find a decent-paying job at a dealership.
On the morning of April 4, Barrera was one of five workers who walked out of his restaurant, leaving a newly hired cook and two managers to try to fill the void on their own.
That same day, he appeared on a cable news show to talk about the campaign. In the course of the interview, he learned for the first time that most new jobs in America pay low wages.
"I didn't realize that," he said a few days later. "If workers get a little more educated about what's going on, that would cause outrage. It's not that people don't want to fight. It's that maybe they don't think anything better is even out there. They think fast food is a low job that isn't meant to be a career, and that may have been true a decade ago. But it's different now. That may be the only career people can get."
This story appears in Issue 48 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 10.