No good deed goes unpunished: Ask McDonald’s

You have to feel a bit sorry for McDonald’s. The company collaborated with Visa to create a website to help low-income workers learn budgeting skills. The initiative — clearly good intentioned — was met with scorn and derision because, its critics say, it’s a tacit admission that McDonald’s employees can’t live on what McDonald’s pays.

Reading the news coverage, I was reminded of the scene in the movie, Casablanca, where the local police captain expresses shock that gambling is going on at Rick’s upscale club, where most of the movie takes place. Come on:  Is there anyone who is really, truly shocked to hear that service workers have a hard time getting by in today’s economy? Did you think the counter servers at McDonald’s do their weekly grocery shopping at Whole Foods?

Many Americans have problems making ends meet, and need all the budgeting skills they can get. According to a study report published in late 2012 by The Working Poor Families Project (WPFP), the number of working families in the United States considered to be low-income increased to 10.4 million in 2011, up from 10.2 million in 2010, and those families included 47.5 million people, about half of whom (23.5 million) are children.

Of course, not all of these low-income families are reliant on a minimum wage breadwinner. Many are headed by adults who work for more than the minimum wage, or multiple working adults who combine their earnings to better meet their household’s needs. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2012, 75.3 million workers in the United States age 16 and over were paid at hourly rates, representing 59.0 percent of all wage and salary workers, but only about 4% of those hourly workers earned minimum wage. (See this BLS profile link.)

Yes, the people at McDonald’s who smile and take and serve your order, and cook your fast food, often are members of low-income households. According to the WPFP study cited above, most low-income families are supported by family members who work in the service sector, “often in jobs that require working long hours and on weekends.”

In 2011, about one-fourth of adults in low-income working families were employed in just eight occupations, as cashiers, cooks, health aids (sic), janitors, maids, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, or drivers… Cashiers make up the single-largest occupational group, with nearly a million people in low-income working families in 2011. (Source: BLS)

Low-income workers may need a second job (according to the BLS, about 5% of Americans have one), or another family member working, to get by in today’s economy. And it’s not just service workers. I know teachers and nonprofit professionals who have roommates and some who ride share, to make ends meet. They drive used cars and don’t take vacations, and worry about health care costs they can’t afford.

Should McDonald’s be castigated for publishing what a Washington Post article points out is, in fact, a realistic example of a budget that reflects the hard financial choices faced by low-income households? I think not. What do you think?

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