Who deserves $15 per hour?


“Okay, rant – For those fast food employees striking for $15 an hour, let’s do some math. At $15 an hour Johnny Fry-Boy would make $31,200 annually. An E1 (Private) in the military makes $18,378. An E5 (Sergeant) with 8 years of service only makes $35,067 annually. So you’re telling me, Sally McBurgerflipper, that you deserve as much as those kids getting shot at, deploying for months in hostile environments, and putting their collective asses on the line every day protecting your unskilled butt!? Here’s the deal, Baconator, you are working in a job designed for a kid in high school who is learning how to work and earning enough for gas, and hanging out with their equally goofy high school pals. If you have chosen this as your life long profession, you have failed. If you don’t want minimum wage don’t have minimum skills.”

This little “rant” has been making its way around social media sites in the last few days. I happened across it, having been shared on Facebook by two different friends of mine. On the surface, the flaws in this little bit of online trolling are obvious. Well, they should be obvious to most, but it’s clearly something that has quite a few people nodding their heads in agreement. However, this type of thinking is not only ignorant, it’s also harmful. Americans already have a strange relationship with low-wage workers, even among the low-wage workers themselves. There is a peculiar culture among middle and upper class folks, involving opinions on what the poorer people in society “deserve.” Assistance for the working poor, or even just acknowledgement of their hardships, is often deemed tantamount to socialism.

What I posted above is a post going around social media this past week (I procured it from Facebook, but it may not have originated there), which has been copied and shared ad nauseam. It references recent protests across the country by fast-food employees, who have argued that they deserve to make a living wage, and that minimum and near-minimum wage is not sufficient or fair to those diligently working 40 plus hours a week. These protests have garnered both significant support and derision.

So, I’m going to waste more time than I probably should looking over this stupid “rant” and explain why it’s wrong. Yeah, I know, I should more carefully pick my battles. But, people smart enough to know better are falling for this stuff.

First of all, this makes some pretty big assumptions. For one, right off the bat, the rant takes the same defensive tactic I’ve seen many people post before. They’re taking someone else’s attempt at improving their quality of life as an attack. Basically, $15 an hour is more than low-ranking soldiers make, and fast-food workers “deserve” to make less than our fearless soldiers.  I’ve seen the same argument made using paramedics (and other first-responders) as the example. The weakness with this argument is a pretty glaring one. It assumes that striking fast-food workers are demanding to make more than any specific group of people.

This is, of course, completely untrue. What the fast-food workers are arguing for is a living wage. They have argued, and I will now argue again, that what they request should not reflect on other occupations. With an increased minimum wage, all jobs should (and usually do) see a gain in overall pay. Fast-food workers aren’t arguing for their pay to be lifted over other jobs. They want the tide to rise and lift all boats. Absolutely, paramedics and soldiers (among others) have difficult jobs. Few people would doubt that they deserved to be paid well for doing often dangerous work. But fast-food workers simply aren’t comparing themselves to first responders and military personnel. It’s an apples and oranges comparison. 

What the striking fast food workers are really arguing for (even when they don’t always put it this way) is an increase to the minimum wage. The United States has one of the lowest minimum wages among wealthy nations, generally several dollars an hour (translating to thousands of dollars a year) less than that of the nations of Western Europe, for example. 

There are individual cities and states within the US that have increased their local minimum wage well beyond that of the federal minimum. In every case, they found the increase had a positive effect on the economy. Unemployment has actually decreased, contrary to conservative doomsayers’ predictions. Matching a minimum wage to inflation – and keeping that amount above the poverty line – has impressive positive effects on the overall state of the economy, as well as reducing overall poverty rates. 

Beyond the economic upside of enforcing a universal living wage, and of course, the incorrect assumptions of what the striking fast-food workers are actually requesting, there is something else really wrong with the above rant.

It gets the very nature of the job wrong. In the modern US service economy, fast-food jobs are no longer merely for teenagers. In order to make a living of any sort, many adults, often with plenty of higher education, have been forced to find more menial work. A solid majority of the current American fast-food industry is manned by workers past college age. These are people who often have previously held higher-paying jobs. For millions of American workers, the Great Recession forced them out of the workforce. In order to do little things like eat, and maintain shelter, many took whatever jobs they could get. This often meant fast-food. And these hard-working Americans were still often forced to apply for food stamps and other assistance. Minimum wage, even at 40 plus hours a week, simply isn’t enough for most adult Americans to get by. Many have children, or older relatives to feed, clothe, and house. 

The days of fast-food being the sole province of the young and the voluntarily-employed, have been over for a while now. “Good jobs” aren’t always easy to find. And the longer that people, even qualified people, are out of the market for those jobs, the harder it is to actually land one. Employers often look at unemployment periods more than they do legitimate qualifications.

To counter the idiotic “rant” that set off my rant – No, very few people have chosen fast-food as a career. They decided that working is preferable to not working, and found what they could. But that has been woefully inadequate for even mere survival, much less the ability to thrive and prosper. 

It is a sign of an advanced and civilized society that those in good financial shape acknowledge the existence of those who aren’t. We all pay taxes, we all contribute, or at least are supposed to contribute. Contributing to the common good brings up everybody. It is not a restriction of individual freedoms to understand that some communal action is necessary to maintain a functional and healthy society. The individual matters. So does the common good. Neither needs to be sacrificed for the other.  We are a nation of 315 million, living in an interconnected world of 7 billion. There are no islands anymore. 

America prospers when Americans prosper. If someone is working 40, 50, 60 hours per week, they should not have to struggle. They should not require food stamps just so their children eat. The real point that the above rant missed, isn’t that people earning the minimum wage deserve more or less than “higher-skilled” workers. It’s that the minimum wage itself is insufficient. Maybe $15 an hour is too high. Maybe not. It’s a good point to start from, as a negotiating tactic. Perhaps this would eventually  lead to an $11 or $12 per hour minimum wage. That would still be a huge improvement. Maybe McDonald’s would need to add 40 cents to a Big Mac… maybe Dollar Menus would become 2 Dollar Menus… Maybe Wal-Mart would set prices closer to that of say, Target.

This is a small price to pay for wealthier, healthier, happier, and more secure people. Almost every large corporate employer of large numbers of minimum wage workers can absorb a 20, 50, to even 90 percent bump in the average wages of their employees. Corporate profits have been that good in recent years. Investing in those who make the company run is a smart move, from a corporate perspective. But this involves long-term thinking, which Corporate America is notoriously pathetic at. At this point, it is needed. The minimum wage has been set too low for too long. Until the federal government finally gets on board (Looking at you, Congress), the states and cities will have to pick up the slack. And I will fully support these places and make sure that cities like Seattle and San Francisco are praised as actually understanding the needs of the American worker and the American economy.

As to whomever actually wrote the above post, and to those who nod their heads in agreement – understand that life for those at the bottom is quite a bit more complex than you believe. And understand that those at the bottom are the ones that hold up everyone else. Strengthening them strengthens us all.

As a postscript to this little “rant,” I wish to recommend a book to anybody who doubts the need for an increased minimum wage. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. This book opened my eyes to the individual plights of those who work full-time, but still barely survive. There are all sorts of people at the bottom rung of the American workforce. Actually meeting them, and learning who they are as people, might go a ways toward helping those like the above “ranter” change their mind on what type of pay is “deserved.”

A little empathy would do wonders for America.

Finally, here are some links explaining exactly what’s going on with the fast-food protesters:



About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
This entry was posted in Economics, Social Justice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Who deserves $15 per hour?

  1. armondikov says:

    The concept of what people “deserve” is massively entrenched. Take this for example: http://metro.co.uk/2013/02/07/house-of-commons-barista-earns-more-than-a-policeman-3398578/

    For central London, that wage is mediocre at best – and for a job that’s on your feet all day moving about performing tasks. And yet the Tax Avoider’s Alliance dares to call their employers “out of touch” for it. I’d say for the middle of a big city in a fairly prestigious location that’s fair recompense. Basically (to put a leftie/quasi-Marxist cap on for a moment) rich folk seem very uncomfortable about the prospect of working class people being paid.

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