The persistence of low wages is one of my big hobbyhorses. Many problems in the U.S. could be ameliorated if companies, which are sitting on record amounts of cash and raking in record profits, were willing to pay just a little bit more. Weak consumer demand, a persistent complaint from companies, would rise. Walmart would find it easier to enter markets it would like to be in, such as New York and Washington, D.C. The deficit would decline, as payroll taxes are easy to collect.
But there is an obsession, bordering on pathology, with keeping wages as low as humanly possible. In 2008 and 2009, it was a matter of survival for many firms. But even in the fifth year of an expansion, companies regard low wages as the new normal. And so some are putting together helpful information for employees on how they can make it—and even save money—on something close to the minimum wage.
When I first came across the Practical Money Skills Budget Journal, linked to by ThinkProgress.org, I thought it was a parody. But it seems to be real. McDonald’s and Visa have put together some Web content that aims to advise people how to manage budgets and improve their financial lot. There’s a picture of a smiling McDonald’s employee leaning out of a drive-through window, the Golden Arches, and a line that says “brought to you by Visa, Inc.” It’s an admirable impulse, but the execution leaves something to be desired.
The fun starts on page three of the journal with the sample monthly budget. It presumes net income (after tax) from the first job of $1,105 a month—that comes out to 35 hours at $7.89 per hour of take-home pay. To get the income up to $2,060, there’s a line for a second job that would bring in $955. So first, in addition to working 35 hours per week at a low wage, the employee has to go pull another five or six shifts at a second job.
Once the employee is working 75 to 80 hours a week, it’s a relatively simple matter of budgeting. Some of the lines sound reasonable: $600 a month for rent, $100 a month for car and home insurance, $100 a month for cable and phone. But some of the suggestions are banoodles. Presumably these employees must all live in Hawaii, because the suggested monthly cost of heating is ... zero. The line for health care is $20 a month, which is enough to pay for a bottle of aspirin—and a couple of days of health-insurance coverage each month. I’m not sure what kind of car you could purchase, maintain, and operate for $150 a month, but Visa and McDonald’s seem to be confident that the theoretical employee could find one. Set aside $100 for savings each month, and the employee has $27 to spend each day. (In a statement, McDonald’s told ThinkProgress that “the samples that are on this site are generic examples and are intended to help provide a general outline of what an individual budget may look like.”)
Now, if you were living under somebody else’s roof, had no financial obligations, and were just getting started in life—like if you were a teenager or a recent high school graduate—the numbers behind this budget might make some sense. And time was, people in such a situation comprised a big chunk of McDonald’s workforce.
But that’s no longer the case. Many people who work at McDonald’s and other large low-wage employers are trying to support themselves and others. The fantasy budget suggests what most people already know: it is really, really hard to have a decent life when your hourly wages are low.
It’s understandable that a big employer would try to provide such paternalistic advice and services to employees. But it’s also sort of clueless and more than a little condescending. People who live on chronically low incomes know all about budgeting. And the best way to improve employees’ financial standing doesn’t require the construction of a Web-based tool. Employers just have to pay them a little more.