Mary Sanchez

Fast-food purgatory ensnares too many

Updated: 2013-10-17T04:48:16Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

Should a decision made at 16 chart a person’s life forever?

If they get latched to fast-food work, the answer inadvertently is becoming “yes.”

Of course, you’d never hear a McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or Wendy’s executive say such a thing outright. And all the blame for their employees’ circumstances can’t fairly be pointed in their direction. Yet the low wages in the fast-food industry is a business model that doesn’t facilitate upward movement for many workers, despite industry claims. And these employees affect you. Like it or not, with the economy, we’re all linked.

Common story lines were among the fast-food workers protesting low wages Tuesday in midtown. People had dropped out of high school to work because of a pregnancy, to support a child they had fathered and to help support their parents and siblings. Clearly, many of the people made a poor choice when young and didn’t have the advantage of educated, middle class parents.

So spare the tendency to urge them to “work harder.” Fast food, especially when done full time, is demanding labor. The problem is many of these workers started in fast-food jobs and got stuck, not educated enough to get a better job, too busy working to make ends meet to earn a better education.

Taxpayers have to cough up a whopping $7 billion annually to make up for what fast-food companies don’t pay their workers, according to a study released Tuesday.

More than half of the families of front-line fast-food workers rely on public assistance — food stamps, subsidized housing, health care for their children — researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found. Too many people trapped in low-wage jobs is not good for the economy. Yet despite the protests to double the federal minimum wage to $15, don’t expect it.

Economists differ on what that would do to employment. Would the extra pay come from cutting CEO salaries, raising the cost of your burger, closing stores and either firing or automating to cut the number of workers? Fewer jobs would raise welfare costs, creating a vicious cycle. And fast food is just one industry worth examining. Part of the problem is that so many growing industries rely on a steady supply of low-skilled, low-paid workers with little upward mobility.

Approach this dilemma however fits your mindset. Is this fair? Is it moral? Is it sound economics for a prosperous nation? If you are a taxpayer, start paying attention.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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