Fast food workers nationwide are rising up and walking out to protest wage inequality and foul working conditions. Their plight doesn't only impact the lives of the workers themselves, among whom there are many millennials, but also every taxpayer who foots the public assistance bill to support them, because their wages cannot.
A recent study found that more than half of American fast food industry workers rely on support from Medicaid, food stamps, Earned Income Tax Credit, and other public programs designed to aid low-wage and low-benefit families. The total cost of these programs for taxpayers adds up to approximately $7 billion per year. "Although extensive," the report explains, "the hidden cost of low-wage work rarely factors into debates about state and public policy." The working poor — one in five fast food workers lives in poverty — mainly shoulder the burden of earning less in a year than their CEOs do in a single day, but taxpayers are also heavily affected.
The myth that low wages in the fast food industry are justified because most of the workforce is comprised of young people trying to earn extra cash is untrue. The majority of fast food workers are women of color, who are paid an average of only 60 percent of what male workers are paid. Whether they’re going to college or not, living with parents or alone, young non-white and non-male workers are earning less, and are thus more likely to need public assistance in order to break even.
What’s most striking about the fast food industry, however, is the disparity of wealth and lifetime goals within its workforce. Sydney, who worked for a fast food chain in central Massachusetts before going to college, observed that the greatest disconnect between her and other servers was the financial divide. "[One coworker of mine] was working two jobs to pay his rent, [another] was sending money back to his family in Mexico so they could work on construction for their house." Another coworker, just out of high school, was working full time to support his family instead of going to college. The fast food industry employs people from all walks of life, barely paying them, and constructing narratives that erase their workforce's plurality of backgrounds in order to justify wage theft.
There is hope for change. Organizations like Fast Food Forward, Fight for 15, and the SEIU have ongoing petitions for a livable wage for workers in the industry. Some politicians, like NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, have lent their verbal support. To truly effect change, however, every aspect of the story must be told — including that of taxpayers outside the industry whose public assistance contributions have to be used to ease the unimaginable wage divide between fast food CEOs and their workers. Giving workers a livable salary is a first step, but before that can occur, we must realize that the exploitation of those behind fast food counters affects all of us, even though it may hit some harder than others.