I think every American can agree that wasteful spending by the federal government needs to be corrected. The problem is we can’t seem to agree on the “wasteful” part.

As we have seen, people with radical views on the right want to slash and burn any shred of a safety net for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Are they doing this because the most vulnerable among us have little or no voice, and thus can’t fight back? Or are Tea Party anti-populists actually heartless and delusional?

If it is the former, at least I understand the strategy. If it’s the latter, we have a sickness in our land that needs a strong remedy.

Let’s take a closer look at the human side of this problem. According to Fortune, the median wage for fast-food workers nationally is $8.69 per hour, and only 13% of these jobs offer health benefits, compared to 59% of jobs overall in the U.S. Thus, it comes as no surprise that 52% of cooks, servers and other fast-food workers receive public aid — nearly twice the percentage of the overall workforce.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said that “anyone concerned about the federal deficit only needs to look at the numbers to understand a major source of the problem: multi-billion dollar companies that pay poverty wages and then rely on taxpayers to pick up the slack, to the tune of a quarter of a trillion dollars every year in the form of public assistance to working families.”

McDonald’s alone accounts for $1.2 billion of the cost to taxpayers. The massive burger chain and others use a low-wage, no benefits model that forces workers to turn to the public safety net.

Any student of American history knows that labor-management disputes are commonplace, particularly since industrialization. And fast food workers have been busy protesting and asking for fair wages. I hope they keep the pressure on their employers, and I hope consumers will refrain from supporting companies with questionable labor practices. But resisting a cheap burger isn’t easy, especially when you consider the advertising budgets fast feeders have at their disposal. Hell, Carl’s Jr. even makes salad look good.

Jonathan Heller, president of KEJ Financial Advisors, believes it is the wrong time for fast food workers to ask for $15/hour, as protestors have done recently. “If the economy was booming, and labor markets were tighter, wages would rise naturally as there would be greater competition for labor. But not in this tepid economy.”

Wages would rise naturally? Get the hell out of here. Wages do not rise naturally, no matter how strong the overall economy. Owners and operators want to keep costs down, so they can earn more. It’s the name of the game, and we all play it to some degree. But at what cost?

By paying shit wages a company engenders no loyalty from its staff, and this lack of concern then gets passed on to the consumer in the form of poor customer service and a host of other problems. Therefore, paying low wages is un-American — it hurts American consumers directly, and it hurts American taxpayers directly.

Asking American corporations and employers to help fuel the economy via investment in its people is not asking too much. We have all the money in the world in this nation, we simply do a very poor job of distributing it. Partly due to greed, but it’s not greed alone that holds us in this trap of our own making. It’s also the idea that the owner and investor class is a better class of people.

Class, race, income, education, location and political leanings can all be used to stratify and separate us. It happens all the time, and no group is free of this pack-making tendency. We feel more secure when we belong to a pack. In Portland, for instance, one might belong to the rich white liberal Prius-driving pack. Once upon a time, we saw ourselves as Americans. That was the pack we all belonged to, but no more. Now we belong to a subset. Now we’re Christian conservatives or secular humanists or a hundred other labeled things.

The crisis in Washington, DC is merely a mirror onto the larger national identity crisis. We don’t know who we are as Americans any more, and it shows in ugly ways: tragic gun deaths every day, pointless foreign wars, media illiteracy and so on. It can be terribly depressing to look at and consider, but we need to look at it and consider it, if we intend to fix it.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Point heard, I agree with your sentiment, but not the rational in your post. The part you don’t address is the capitalist free market that we have here in the US, in which “an invisible hand governs the marketplace”. That means prices are driven by demand, and wages are determined by the value of a skill. The bottom line is, if you don’t work hard, you’re not as successful. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Utopia where everyone gets everything they need and want. But that’s life. It all has to come from somewhere else, and you have to work to get it. Anyone can flip burgers, and you have to work harder or make yourself into something better to earn better.

    In the utopia you describe, McD would pay it’s 1.7 million employees all at least $15/hr. But that would kill budgets for things that drive business like advertising. McD is in a very competetive business – they would lose marketshare and have to closes doors. People lose jobs. Instead of making less they would be out of job completely.

    Just food for thought.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jamie. I know it must sound like a Utopia that I describe, but it’s not Utopia if we can actually usher in the changes that make fairness a new American value.

    You contend that “hard work” is the path to success. Of course it is, but what I don’t see in your take above is an admission of how hard low wage earners work. Which goes to my point in the article about judging people, both rich and poor.

    You also say people must “work harder” to earn more and live the American dream. I wish the formula were that simple, but it isn’t. All Americans do not start from the same starting blocks. When you are white, well educated and a man, you have an unfair advantage. To deny this seems silly, given how obvious it is, so let’s own it and deal with it.


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