McDonald’s Becomes a Progressive Company: According to Themselves

Photo by ProjectManhatten

Photo by ProjectManhatten

On April 2nd, (a day too late for an April fools day joke) McDonald’s took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times proclaiming to be “a modern, progressive burger company” and that starting on July 1st, the wages of employees working in company-owned U.S. restaurants would be raised. Specifically, these employees can expect a one-dollar an hour increase in pay over and above local legal minimum wages. Ninety thousand employees in 1,500 outlets will be affected, earning by 2016 about $10 an hour. Left behind, however, are the 750,000 employees working in some 12,500 franchises that are exempt from McDonald’s progressiveness.

But before we get carried away celebrating the one-dollar increase for the 10.7% of employees impacted by McDonald’s reformism, we should recognize that a buck does not even come close to any type of definition for progressiveness. If you are a single person making $10 an hour, and work 40 hour a week ($400/wk), 52 weeks a year, your salary will be $20,500 a year. In reality, the vast majority of employees get to work less than 40 hours a week so that the company can avoid paying benefits. But for argument’s sake, let’s say that you do work a full 40 hours a week. If we compare your salary with the 2015 government’s official poverty level of $11,770, it will seem that you are making almost twice the poverty level and have the opportunity to get ahead. Even if you are a single parent, the official 2015 poverty level is at $15,930 for two persons, meaning that you are living only slightly above poverty.

And yet, these statistics are misleading. Here is why paying $10 an hour is oppressive rather than progressive. The official definition of poverty masks the true extent of poverty in the United States. Poverty was defined fifty years ago by government statistician Mollie Orshansky, who at the time recognized the shortcomings herself of the definition. The official definition of poverty (PT = 3 x SFB or Poverty Threshold = 3 x Subsistence Food Budget) fails to consider the radical changes in consumption patterns since the early 1960s. It was originally based mainly on food consumption, which since then has become less expensive in relationship to housing, health care, childcare, and transportation. Changes in consumer patterns have converted the original formula into nonsensical numbers.[1] For a family of four, the official poverty level is $20,090. However, according to the “Economic Budget Calculator” provided to Economic Policy Institute, the real poverty level closer to $48,000 a year, which is needed to meet basic necessities. Nevertheless, the medium salary, according to the U.S. government, is $52,117; which means that about half of the U.S. population lives in poverty. We cannot recalculate the official poverty figures, for to do so would mean that in the wealthiest nation ever known to humanity, about 50% of its population lives in poverty.

Misrepresenting the true level of poverty within the United States does serve a purpose. Politicians can argue that public spending on the poor has had little effect, and therefore should be discontinued. The growing disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich leads us to question if it is a “work ethic” that is at stake or perhaps a “work ideology” that allows the wealthy and privileged to rationalize classism.

Most people within the United States hold the assumption that anyone can succeed, if they just work hard enough. The only thing that might hold them back is their own lack of initiative. The “Protestant Work Ethic,” a term popularized by sociologist Max Weber, undergirds American society and preaches an equality of opportunities. Hard work in the career (calling) to which God summons every person is rewarded by God with material blessings, while those who fail to work hard are punished with poverty for their laziness. And yet, if you work hard at MacDonald’s, never taking a day off, you will not be able to financially meet your basic needs. We respond to this unjust dilemma by creating the oxymoron term “the working poor.” Not surprisingly, the population groups more likely to live in poverty are children, African Americans and Latino/as, women living alone, non-citizens, single mothers, and those living in central cities. Working hard full-time does not ensure sustainability. Consider that in 2014, McDonald’s made almost $6.4 billion in profits and paid its incoming chief executive officer, Steve Easterbrook, $1.1 million (69% par raise).

For years, employees and labor groups have been placing pressure, through picketing and protests, on the fast-food behemoth for a base salary of $15 an hour. Even at this wage, the employee, working full time, would only make $31,200, well within the definition of poverty. Discontent with McDonald’s progressiveness will be witnessed by several protest rallies throughout the country in a few days, on April 15. The failure of McDonald’s and other corporations to pay substandard wages, causing employees to financially survive, becomes a testament to the absence of any moral foundation, either religious or secular. Franz Hinkelammert, the Latin American theologian probably said it best: “the existence of the poor attests to the existence of a Godless society, whether one explicitly believes in God or not.”[2]

[1] Blank, Rebecca M. “Presidential Address: How to Improve Poverty Measurement in the United States” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management Vol. 27, No. 2 (2008): 233-54.
[2] Hinkelammert, Franz J. “Liberation Theology in the Economic and Social Context of Latin America,” in Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity, and the Americas, ed. by David Batstone, Eduardo Mendieta, Lois Ann Lorentzen, and Dwight N. Hopkins (London: Routledge, 1997), 27.

Miguel A. De La Torre

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