Trying to raise a family on a fast-food salary

By Christine Owens
August 29, 2013

Fast-food workers in more than 50 cities Thursday are striking for fair pay and the right to form a union — the biggest walkout to hit the industry. This latest round of labor unrest comes 50 years after hundreds of thousands of Americans, led by Martin Luther King Jr., joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, demanding not only civil rights, but also good jobs and economic equality.

One demand of the 1963 marchers was raising the federal minimum wage to $2 an hour. In today’s dollars, that’s roughly $15 an hour — what the striking fast-food workers are now calling for.

For all the progress made since 1963, the reality is that economic inequality persists and continues to grow. Income inequality is greater today in the U.S. than in any other OECD nation, except Chile, Mexico and Turkey, and exceeds that of many developing countries.

Almost one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. CEO compensation, meanwhile, continues to climb. It would take a full-time, minimum-wage worker more than 930 years to earn as much as the chief executive officer of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, made in 2012.

Fast-food workers are in the lowest paid occupational category. The median hourly wage for frontline fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average — at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year.

Wages are so low that many workers have to turn to public assistance for basic survival. Which means that taxpayers must subsidize the poverty wages that fast-food corporations pay their employees.

That’s indefensible, especially considering corporate fast-food giants are enjoying robust profits. McDonald’s raked in $5.5 billion in profits in 2012 — a 27 percent increase in profits over five years — while YUM! Brands posted $1.6 billion in profits last year.

But these profits are clearly not trickling down to the frontline workers. The fact that the workers are willing to strike — one of the riskiest things any worker, but especially a low-wage worker, can do — shows how untenable the situation is.

The fast-food industry lobbyists promote the stereotype that fast-food workers are teenagers earning pocket money. In fact the majority of fast-food workers now are adults, with a median age of 28. These are jobs that many adults are dependent on to support families. More than one in four fast-food workers are raising children, according to a Center for Economic and Policy Research study. This trend is mirrored broadly across our low-wage workforce: 88 percent of low-wage workers are adults today, compared with 74 percent 35 years ago.

The fast-food worker protests are taking place in the context of a disproportionate expansion of low-wage work in the U.S. economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven of ten growth occupations through 2020 will be low-wage, including jobs with big-box retailers and fast-food chains. This shift toward low-wage work in our labor market is a decades-long trend that has accelerated during the recession and subsequent recovery. Low-wage jobs represented 20 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but constitute 60 percent of jobs gained in the recovery.

What can we do to address this low-wage jobs crisis? Exerting pressure on the fast-food and retail giants that rake in billions in profits is a good starting point. These companies can afford to share more of their wealth with their frontline workers and should be doing so.

Federal policymakers also need to act on raising the federal minimum wage — which now stands at just $7.25 an hour — to boost wages broadly across the bottom of the labor market. It’s also time for Washington to get serious about investing in the creation of good jobs.

Boosting wages for America’s lowest-paid workers is a crucial step toward reducing economic inequality and rebuilding a strong economy. Perhaps 50 years from now, we’ll look back on the fast-food workers’ fight as the catalyst we so desperately needed.

PHOTO (Top): Workers and labor activists march down West Grand Boulevard as they demand a raise in the minimum wage for fast-food workers in Detroit, Michigan, May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

PHOTO (Insert): People demonstrate outside a Burger King franchise on 116th Street in New York, April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton



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Not to be crass, but what would happen to America if we stopped eating at fast food restaurants? Less obesity and the same number of people being on welfare?

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

The article clearly has a point of view, but the factoid that the median age of fast food workers is 28 is misleading. Mostly because the fast food places hire many teenagers to work after school hours, but the also hire many retirees to work the day shifts when the teenagers aren’t available. If you look at the whole pool, yes, half are below 28 — far below 28 — and half are above 28 — far above 28 — and few are actually in those middle age ranges (and probably most of them are managers).

Posted by Fred_PA_2000 | Report as abusive

Since when did working at a fast food restaurant become a career?

Also it is simplistic to say that these restaurants are a whole entity. A good majority of them are franchises and are run by individuals that invested in them. The whole logic of investments is trying to receive money back on your investments. Yes McDonald’s may make $5.5 billion but that is not as a whole.

And if these jobs are so bad, why are there people lining up to fill them.

Posted by KFJ3000 | Report as abusive

honestly the notion that we subsidize low wage employees with tax dollars is anti-democrat views from an american dream standpoint (aka work hard and you can get ahead). It’s anti-republican because you cannot call those companies self sufficient when they aren’t paying their employees enough to live off of thus getting the rest of their money from people who have nothing to do with their company. And thirdly it’s anti-capitalism to expect your employees to get paid by someone else, in fact (though I hate to use this term)the companies who do this could very well be seen as pro-socialism at least for their low end workers.

Posted by Serraph | Report as abusive

fast food jobs have always been viewed as temporary jobs unless you are part of management. Even then the managers and assistants are out and gone within 5 years’i know the unions are all for the highest wage possible so they can make even more money from the workers. That is their bottom line, then a large part of their money goes to the democrats in order to buy a political party influence. Higher wages drive up prices, and in some cases cause layoffs, or complete shut downs. And the majority of the workers will not work any harder even for a higher wage.

Posted by fredbedrock | Report as abusive

Poor poor unskilled laborers. They want the same rate that i started earning after college. Granted, i did not have a great job but it was a skilled job in IT. Unfortunately its a losing battle teaching economics to high school educated workers.

Posted by spenny | Report as abusive


Your opinions are “anti, anti, anti”. Please try to be more positive. Any well run company will arrange their affairs so as to pay the least taxes under applicable laws and to get the people to do what they need done for the least cost.

Subsidizing low wage employees with tax dollars is what in Europe is called “social democracy”. That is what is bankrupting Europe.

We all have dreams, but those who try to live in them are usually called alcoholics or addicts.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“But these profits are clearly not trickling down to the frontline workers. The fact that the workers are willing to strike — one of the riskiest things any worker, but especially a low-wage worker, can do — shows how untenable the situation is.”

The exact opposite. When you get paid little there is less risk in striking because you have nothing to lose. These jobs are unskilled so it’s hardly like they’re putting their careers on the line by striking.

Posted by colsa2 | Report as abusive

Maybe a simple solution is not having a famuily while working at a fast food restaurant. This worked for generations of American teens who did that work until uneducated deadbeats took over and started expecting it to pay the bills rather then a stepping stone.

Another great idea is have 2 incomes from 2 parents if raising a kid. If your a single parent… sorry that’s not societies problem but your own. Or even better have a shared living environment like many many have done in past generations saving to get ahead. But heaven forbid todays generation actually has to plan ahead, save, and live small while they work on something big down the road.

Posted by Syanis | Report as abusive

Everyone like to blame the corporate greed, but this situation will not change until the people take the initiative on an individual level.

Anyone who is “living on a fast food salary” will qualify for tuition aid and grants. Making under $18k means you have practically a free ride through community college. Get an associate degree, and start making $30-40k within 2-3 years.

Why do people continue to take these jobs as a lifelong commitment? Fast food jobs should be treated as nothing more than temporary jobs for work experience or extra income, not to support a family. If you need the job, take it, and keep looking for something else.

But as long as people continue working for so little, and do nothing to make themselves qualify for higher pay, then it will not change for them.

Posted by ew0054 | Report as abusive