If McDonald’s Can’t See How To Live on Minimum Wage, Who Can?


Editor’s note: As we approach Labor Day, we are pleased to share a series of articles from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops addressing issues covered in this year’s statement on Labor Day by Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB.

If McDonald’s Can’t See How To Live on Minimum Wage, Who Can?

By Molly Fleming-Pierre 

]Molly Fleming-Pierre

]Molly Fleming-Pierre

A few weeks ago, McDonald’s made headlines for advertising a budget journal for its employees living on minimum wage. Presented as a tool to help workers navigate stretched finances, the sample budget revealed the near impossibility of surviving on $7.25 an hour. It assumed workers had two jobs, paid $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating and did not budget money for food or clothing.

If one the largest fast food corporation in the world can’t figure out how balance the books on minimum wage, how can many families?

Every day, millions of low-wage workers struggle paycheck to paycheck, forced to choose between paying bills, seeing a doctor when they are sick, or putting food on the table. It’s easy to miss these workers, often hiding in plain sight. They serve our burgers, care for our aging parents and clean our hotel rooms.

They are fathers like Terrance, who barely gets to see his three daughters between working two low-wage jobs. When his meager paychecks could no longer stretch to cover the rent, Terrance and his family recently became homeless.

They are mothers like Carman, who knows that each month, the food will be gone before there is money to buy more, and she’ll have to watch her children go hungry.

In this rich nation, Terrance and Carman are two among millions who work hard every single day, but who are poor. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 a year. Most low-wage workers have to keep two, even three jobs to have a fighting chance of keeping a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs.

An economic system in which a person can work and still not make ends meet is inherently unjust.

Catholic teaching is unequivocal on this issue – work is fundamental to the dignity of every person. In their document “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops are clear, “We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around.”

As work has an inherent dignity, wages must reflect the value of that dignity. A person making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour full time earns a scant $15,080 a year before taxes. That puts a family of four well below the poverty line of $23,550. The impacts of these “starvation wages” are devastating.

One in five children in this country is poor. That’s 16 million children living in a wrenching kind of poverty that most of us can’t even imagine. If the moral measure of our nation is marked by how we treat our littlest ones, rising inequality that leaves them behind is proof positive our priorities are out of line.

Some days ago I joined Catholics and other people of faith throughout Kansas City to stand with fast food workers taking action for a living wage. That is, the minimum hourly wage required to meet life’s basic needs at full time work.

Hundreds of low-wage workers, many of them carrying their children on their backs, stood in the rain and in the heat to witness to the cause of their own dignity. Nationally, they were joined by thousands who took action in seven cities, calling for work with dignity.

At some point during the hottest part of the day, I crouched down eye to eye with a small boy standing on the front lines. I asked what he was doing on such a nice day, standing in the hot sun with his family. With wide and solemn eyes, he started right back at me. Slowly and carefully he said, “My mama is worth more.”

Indeed she is.

Molly Fleming-Pierre is Policy Director of COMMUNITIES CREATING OPPORTUNITY, Kansas City, Missouri


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  1. Ms. Fleming Pierre:

    I respectfully disagree with your argument. I have summarized your points and provided counterpoints with links for anyone interested in alternative views on this important issue.

    “Escaping poverty is difficult.”

    It’s not. Graduate high school; don’t have a child out of wedlock; and get a fulltime job (even if it’s at McDonald’s). That’s all it takes to reach the middle class in America, regardless of race or social background.

    Source: http://jacksonville.com/opinion/editorials/2012-01-27/story/three-rules-staying-out-poverty

    “Poor Americans are destitute.”

    They’re not. The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago. The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car, air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, a gaming system, a refrigerator, an oven and stove, a microwave, washer and dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. The home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. In fact, poor Americans have more living space than middle-class Europeans. By its own report, the typical poor family was not hungry, was able to obtain medical care when needed, and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

    Source: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/what-is-poverty

    “America neglects its poor.”

    It doesn’t. Americans are the most generous people on Earth. The U.S. government at all levels has spent $15 trillion in the War on Poverty since 1964. The federal government alone operates 126 separate anti-poverty programs. A typical child from a poor family enjoys income and housing support for their family, health care, preschool education, public school education, college loans or scholarships, and employment and training programs. On top of all the government assistance, Americans donate another $316 billion to more than 1 million charities every year. Almost half of Americans participate actively in civic, religious, and school groups. Poor neighborhoods are overrun with volunteers, social workers, and community organizers. Throw a rock in inner-city Baltimore, and you’ll hit a non-profit. In San Francisco, the average homeless person makes $30K a year for doing nothing. Only in America!

    Source 1: http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/assets/resources/FactSheetFinal.pdf

    Source 2: http://www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/constitution/item/11864-the-war-on-poverty-$15-trillion-and-nothing-to-show-for-it

    “A living wage will reduce poverty.”

    It won’t. Wages are not arbitrary; they’re a function of supply and demand. An employer will hire workers until he expects the revenue produced by the last worker hired to barely exceed the wage he has to pay to attract that worker. In economics jargon, this is called the “market-clearing” price of labor. If the living wage is set above the market-clearing price for a particular job, that job disappears. In other words, the living wage benefits some poor people by harming other poor people. Although some economists argue that the “benefits” to the former group outweigh the “harm” to the latter group, the overall effect on poverty rates is marginal at best. I honestly wish that reducing poverty could be as simple as passing a law. Unfortunately, the immutable laws of economics prevent that from being the case.

    Source: http://mises.org/daily/921


    After throwing trillions of dollars at poverty over the last 60 years, America has nothing to show for it. The poverty rate has barely changed, while the antisocial pathologies of the underclass (illegitimacy, violence, and illiteracy) have worsened. We need to get smart about fighting poverty. This requires addressing the “root causes” of the problem. The harsh truth is that poor people are victims of their own choices—not capitalism, racism, or conservatism. Material poverty stems from a cultural and moral poverty—the widespread rejection of traditional, middle-class American values like hard work, personal responsibility, marriage, honesty, thrift, temperance, and civic responsibility. (In that sense, McDonald’s should be commended for helping its employees practice thrift).

    Sympathy and assistance for the poor must be balanced by hard-headed efforts to change destructive behaviors and attitudes; otherwise, our efforts will make the problem worse. Poor people don’t need more handouts and excuses. They need mentors. They need role models. They need fathers! To quote Charles Murray, wealthier Americans need to “preach what they practice” to the underclass: Don’t have babies you can’t support, don’t sponge off the system, don’t wear your pants below your butt, and don’t spend all your money on cigarettes, booze, lottery tickets, sneakers, rims, and makeovers. Finish school. Get a job. Learn to speak proper English. Unless poor people get their act together, nothing we do for them is going to help–not income redistribution, not the living wage, not affirmative action, not school reform, not urban renewal–nothing!

    “Tough love” is harsh but necessary. Human beings are not peaceful and responsible by nature. We resist our savage impulses only when facing a nexus of social, economic, and legal incentives to do so. Whether it’s finishing our homework, sticking out a rough patch in a marriage, playing an active role in the upbringing of our children, or going to crappy job that we hate, we do these things—not always because we WANT to do them–but because we’re EXPECTED to do them by society or because we MUST do them in order to survive. Human beings are social creatures; we respond to social incentives. In a civilized society, the consequences of abandoning our responsibilities should outweigh the costs of fulfilling them. If the scale tips in the other direction—if we chip away at those incentives with “nonjudgmental” social attitudes, an ever-expanding welfare state, and lax punishments for violent crimes—we risk causing the very downfall of civilization.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. As a high school English teacher, one of the books I taught last year is The Grapes of Wrath, which is such a powerful argument for fair wages and human dignity. (It’s too bad I’m not teaching it this year; what a great opportunity to tie in with current events!). I love what the bishops said: “We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around.” Amen and amen!

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