On a recent road trip with my two-year-old, we stopped for lunch at a drive-through fast food place. It was probably the highlight of her trip. “Woman put food right through window!” she marveled. And a few moments later she was enjoying fries as we cruised toward our destination. “Need more ketchup!” she said, preferring about a 5:1 ratio of ketchup to food. When you see it through a toddler’s eyes, it is pretty miraculous – for a few dollars, hot food to order gets passed through your window, and you enjoy it without even stopping the car.
But that low-price miracle comes at a real cost (and not just to the health of those subsisting primarily on fast-food fries and ketchup). The median wage for fast-food cooks and cashiers is just $8.94/hour. That’s under $19,000 per year if you’re working full time. And most fast-food employees can’t even get enough hours to be full-time – workers average just 24.5 hours per week.
Last Thursday, strikes and rallies erupted in around 200 cities across the country to protest low wages in the fast-food industry and call for a living wage of $15/hour. And the week before that, on Black Friday, thousands of Walmart workers held protests to demand fair wages of $25,000/year, including four protests here in Maine.
These demonstrations are part of a broad-based effort to raise the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, which hasn’t been raised since 2009, leaves even full-time workers living at or below the poverty line. Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50 isn’t much better. A recent report found that Maine has a serious shortage of jobs that pay a living wage, which the report calculates for our state at $15.18/hour. Less than half of the current job openings in Maine pay a living wage. And there are ten job-seekers for each living wage job in the state.
Nationally, polls show that raising the minimum wage is a no-brainer. If minimum wage had simply kept up with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be $10.40 today. Eighty percent of Americans support a raise to $10.10 an hour, including 90% of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans. Studies indicate that such a wage hike would increase household spending by about $50 billion, boost GDP, raise millions out of poverty, and help close the gender and race gaps in earnings.
Next time I think of cruising through a drive-through for a cheap meal, I’ll think twice about what those fries are really worth. Raising fast-food worker wages would mean lower corporate profits, and could potentially mean higher prices. But I think many of us would be willing to pay a little more for a “value meal” if we knew that the industry actually valued its workers.
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