Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Fast food workers need more than $7.25 to sustain basic living

(Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
(Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Waves of protests by fast food workers have infiltrated the country in the past few weeks. Demands such as raising minimum wages to $15, increasing the ability to form unions and improved health benefits are among many orders that protestors are requesting. Such protests have received praise for practicing civil disobedience and exercising the constitutional right to protest.

Some protests, like the ones in Seattle beginning in 2012, even achieved victories. In June, the Seattle city council voted unanimously to gradually raise minimum wage to $15 by 2017, depending on the size of the business and whether or not it provides health insurance.

To fully understand this issue, it is important to highlight a distinction between “minimum wage” and “living wage.” The minimum wage is a regulatory tool that sets the legal minimum at which labor can be bought or sold. The setting of the minimum wage fails to take into consideration the cost of living, poverty levels or tax brackets, and is largely meant to standardize labor prices and prevent worker exploitation.

By contrast, the “living wage” is a policy initiative that determines the wage level at which a worker may meet basic life needs. The needs described under the “living wage” extend beyond biological needs such as food and water, for they also consider housing, child care and health care, among others.

The differences between these two concepts are of utmost importance when discussing the recent protests, for it helps clarify why exactly the workers are demanding $15 an hour.

As a tool for understanding the concept of living wage, Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a “Living Wage Calculator” which uses updated statistics and commodity prices to calculate the living wage in each county and city in the United States.

According to the living wage calculator, a single adult living here in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, needs to earn $18,859 every year before taxes to support themselves alone. This can be achieved by working full time at $9.07 per hour.

However, if two adults living together are supporting one child, they need to earn $36,855, which comes out to $17.72 per hour, assuming that one parent takes time off to raise the child. When a second child is added, the amount jumps to $39,803, with $19.14 per hour.

For these calculations, it can be argued that both parents can work and earn enough at a lower hourly rate, but this view does not take into account child care costs that are incurred for parents who both work full time, which factor heavily into living wage calculations.

For single parents, the results are even more daunting. For a single parent to raise one child, they must earn an annual income of $47,179, or a wage of $22.68 per hour. A single parent trying to raise two children is estimated to need $61,503, with a wage of $29.57.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 26.6 percent of fast food workers aged 16 and over have a child, and that number jumps to 36.4 percent when only workers ages 20 and over are counted. With this in mind, about 79 percent of workers over the age of 20 make only $10.10 per hour.

This is troubling, especially when considering that working full time at the federal minimum wage earns a pre-tax income of $15,080. It is hard to imagine raising a family with an annual income of $15,000 that’s knowingly short by tens of thousands of dollars.

Even more appalling is that despite these facts, there are some people in this country who would still advocate against raising the minimum wage. The argument is that working in the fast food industry, or in other comparable professions, is not worth more than $7.25 per hour, basing such a claim on the fact that the labor is “un-skilled.”

This argument is flawed. Just because an employee works at a fast food restaurant, does that employee deserve to be paid less than what is required to live? Some say that if a person wants to earn more, they must simply work harder and with more determination. What does this mean? Is working 40-plus hours per week not working hard? Is that 40 hours somehow not worthy of facilitating a healthy and sustainable life?

Working, no matter what kind of work it is, deserves a correct, justified and humane compensation. The people working in the fast food industry are not just teenagers working a summer job, or college students making money during winter breaks. These are adults with families, with responsibilities and with the same desire to live a long and fulfilling life characteristic of every American.

I respect the fast food worker who toils daily in pursuit of the American Dream far more than all the interns and associates and partners at all the corporations in the world combined. Let’s hope these protests continue and don’t stop until real progress is made.

Samuel Fountain is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • P

    PhilSep 21, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Noticed this at “Last year, corporate profits reached an all-time record high of $1.68 trillion. Meanwhile, the share of profits that trickled down to workers hit its lowest point since 1950.”
    We HAVE TO ask for minimum wages or minimum living wages because all too many of the corporate elite do not have good hearts. As noted elsewhere on the Jobs with Justice page, all those who work hard deserve a decent living and respect.

  • P

    PhilSep 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

    This article raises very important points. There is something horribly wrong that in the wealthiest nation in the world, nearly half of its population lives in poverty. There is something wrong when so many workers who put in 40 or more hours a week do not get back enough to reasonably support themselves and their family. There is something wrong that a worker in this wealthy nation should have to consider whether he or she should have a family (as the last commentator seems to suggest). There is something wrong when, as Ralph Nader reports in his new book “I Told You So,” thirty million workers in this country are making less today than workers made in 1968, inflation-adjusted. This is why living wages are needed. The economy in general and businesses in particular can afford to provide better support for labor. By the way, fast-food franchises such as MacDonald’s are not small businesses, which brings up another shame: that fast-food CEOs make 1000 times more than fast-food workers. This is neither fair nor just.

  • W

    WillSep 19, 2014 at 7:16 am

    I don’t see any reason to pay more than what the market will bear for a job that a 14 year old with no skills can do. It’s not the small business owners fault that someone with no way to support a family decided to have one anyway.

  • A

    AuthorSep 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm


    Thanks for your thoughts. I totally agree with you that mandating a living wage is an unrealistic and probably in the end not beneficial to anyone – business, workers etc. My article wasn’t meant to weigh the pros and cons of elevating the minimum wage to a living wage- as this is an issue that is very far beyond my intellectual grasp. Mandating a living wage is not something I am trying to advocate.

    The illustration that I tried to convey with the living wage calculator was that the discrepancy between minimum wage and living wage is so stark. While a living wage will likely never come to fruition (and $15 and hour is not a living wage, as being demanded by the protesters), the minimum wage clearly falls well below the mark set by cost of living in our country.

    Also just to clarify- the numbers regarding living wage in the article were pertaining to Hampshire county, Massachusetts.


  • P

    PubliusSep 17, 2014 at 10:19 am

    While noble in intent, this article doesn’t address any of the main issues with raising the minimum wage to a ‘living wage’:

    -‘living wage’, as admitted in the column, varies significantly by location
    -‘living wage’, as admitted by the column, varies even more significantly depending on family size/kids

    With those in mind, how can the minimum wage be reset to a ‘living’ one? The living wages for a single adult ($19k) and a single parent ($47k) are so drastically different that mandating a living wage makes no sense. Either we pay someone more than twice as much for the same work because they have a kid (lawsuit waiting to happen) or we set the minimum wage so absurdly high that anyone could afford to be a single parent with two kids (which would be quadrupling it).

    And, beyond that, we still run into the issue of location- should everyone make enough to be a single parent of two kids in Manhattan? That’d make you fabulously wealthy in the Midwest.

    We can talk about ‘deserving’ a living wage all we want, but how do we make it make sense to mandate?