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

By Samuel Fountain

(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]