A couple of generations of school kids have grown up on the catchy McDonald's advertising jingle, "You deserve a break today." But during every working moment of those years McDonald's workers have gotten anything but a break when it comes to working hours and worse, their wages for those hours. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in a wage survey found that hands down a fast food worker is the poorest paid of any worker in the country. The average pay for fast food workers is barely 9 bucks an hour. Many, however, make closer to the obscenely low $7.25 hourly minimum wage. This averages out to about $15,000 a year. That's below the federal poverty level for a family of two.
The stock argument from the National Restaurant Association and legions of other business groups is that slinging burgers at McDonald's or Burger King is mostly for kids, immigrants, or unskilled workers, and for them it's a boon since it's their first entrance into the labor force. This is a myth. According to the BLS, the average age of fast food workers is now closer to 30 than the teeny bopper age. The wholesale shrink of jobs in manufacturing and the financial industries, the economic downturn, and outsourcing have driven thousands of adults, many of them once middle class and with skills, with few other job options into fast food jobs. Many of them have families, mortgages, and ballooning health and child care expenses. Fast food jobs are hardly just the proverbial soda pop and pocket change money once commonly thought of as for teens. And there's not much chance that most fast food workers can ramp up their pay since fast food eateries are loathe to pay workers for overtime.
Fast food worker organizing groups are demanding a pay hike to $15. But whether it's that amount or a raise to anything that remotely approaches a living wage, the biggest obstacle to a hike is an outlandish myth and the perception of who a minimum wage hike will help. That's especially the case with fast food workers. The GOP and many business groups have sold the false notion that a hike in the minimum wage is a huge job killer. It has been so effective in its hard sell that President Obama and Congressional Democrats have repeatedly been stymied and frustrated in every effort they've made to boost the minimum wage nationally. You'd have to go back more than four decades, to 1968, to find the last year that the minimum wage actually kept pace with inflation for workers.
House Speaker John Boehner in a pithy, horribly simplistic, but effectual retort to the cry for a minimum wage increase, said, "When you raise the price of employment, you get less of it." Boehner and Congressional Republicans cherry pick a few dated studies and some anecdotal employment figures in some low wage, low unemployment states such as North Dakota to make the case that the minimum wage hurts the economy. At first glance, that seems compelling enough. But it ignores other low wage states that have boosted the minimum wage and where there's been no plunge in employment, or wholesale flight of employers from those states to low wage states that won't boost their minimum wage a penny higher than the federal minimum wage.
Then there's the perception that a boost in the minimum wage for workers, especially fast food workers, will solely benefit the chronically poor. This muddles the issue and it becomes a political flash point. With few exceptions, in years past, talk of poverty was not just missing from the nation's political plate, but was a dirty word. The existence of millions of poor in America flew in the face of the embedded laissez faire notion that the poor aren't poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings. Surveys bore this out. Even many among the poor were as apt as many of those in the middle-class, and the well-to-do, to self-debase themselves for their poverty. They blame it on their misfortune, bad luck, lack of education and skills, or alcohol, and drug problems. These are certainly reasons why some fall into poverty or remain chronically poor. They, however, are at best peripheral to the real cause of the poverty rise, and that's the control by a relatively handful of the bulk of the nation's income, resources and productive wealth.
Giving fast food workers a decent living wage would not in and of itself reverse the gargantuan income inequality that's become a national embarrassment. And it certainly wouldn't cause a company such as McDonald's that racked up over $5 billion in profits in 2013 to come crashing down. But it would give hope, incentive, a meaningful financial boost to thousands of workers in that industry, and an overall gain for the economy through their increased spending. This is the real break that fast food workers need.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.