What are future historians going to call this age? Probably not the Era of Good Feelings, which is what we still call the Monroe-era embrace of small-r republicanism. (It was awfully brief.) The Gilded Age has been taken, although we’ve often heard that we’re living in a New Gilded Age.
Lately, I’m wondering if we’ve morphed even beyond that. We know the 1 percent have been partying in contemporary America as never before. And we know the workers at the bottom have been getting hammered. But this week we seem to have entered a phase when it’s OK for the corporations doing the hammering to drop any pretense that they’re supposed to be doing the opposite. It’s quite a moment.
A Walmart store in Canton, Ohio, has been getting some unwanted attention because an employee surreptitiously publicized a store food drive. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill holiday-season food drive. It is not intended for Canton’s destitute. It’s for the store’s own employees. Signs attached to storage containers in an employee-only area of the store, photographed by the employee, ask other employees to “donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” “Associates in need.” Wow.
This is just one store, but corporate HQ has now involved itself, with a company spokesman attesting that this program shows the spirit of intense bonhomie that pervades the store and indeed the entire corporation. It’s just for workers who may have lost a home in a fire or “something else you can’t plan for,” the spokesman said.
That would be plausible if Walmart wages were generous, but we have plenty of reason to think that you don’t have to suffer a unique personal calamity to be a Walmart employee who can’t afford a turkey. The company claims that the average hourly wage for a full-time worker is around $12.50. Critics who’ve investigated this claim think the truth may be closer to $8 or so. But heck, grant the $12.50. For a 35-hour week, counting two unpaid vacation weeks, that still comes to just less than $22,000, which for a family of four is smack at the poverty line. If the critics are closer to correct, the average annual gross pay is less than $15,000. In either case, the purchase of a holiday turkey might be something a family would have to stop and think about.
Not to be outdone, McDonald’s this week decided to offer some helpful tips to its employees about how to make it through the holidays without going into debt. According to Think Progress, the company’s “McResource Line” now offers a full page of advice to 1.8 million employees for “digging out of holiday debt.” One suggested strategy is to sell unwanted items on eBay. Somehow “earn a living wage” isn’t there. Of course the fry cooks and the cashiers aren’t pulling down family-level wages, and we wouldn’t expect them to. But what, say, about assistant managers? That sounds like someone with some responsibility. But even an assistant manager, it turns out, averages $10.44 an hour, or just more than $18,000 a year. (A manager makes about $25,000.)
We’ve reached a decadent new low when corporations that employ nearly 4 million Americans between them, companies that are widely known and aspersed for the parsimonious wages they pay, can openly flaunt that reality and appeal to the charitable impulse of their non-destitute employees and advise employees who aren’t being paid enough to go out and buy their loved ones decent Christmas gifts how to stay out of debt. The Walmart case is like Ebenezer Scrooge—the pre-apparitional-troika Scrooge, the mean one—taking up a collection so that the Cratchits could get a turkey. The McDonald’s example is like Scrooge warning Cratchit that he’d be wise not to spend too much on Tiny Tim’s new crutch.
Yes, we need a higher minimum wage. A full-time salary at the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would make for an annual $15,080 a year, a few hundred dollars below the poverty threshold for a single parent with one child. A vote is expected in the Senate sometime after the Thanksgiving recess on a bill that would raise the bottom wage to $10.10. The odds of passage would seem to be pretty long, but at least some senators are trying. (Read more about all that here.)
But the problem isn’t just a matter of law and policy. We are in a particular kind of mind-set here. What would make this person in Canton think, as he or she undoubtedly and innocently did, that this gesture was somehow one of employee solidarity rather than one of corporate cupidity? He or she has deeply internalized the idea that a corporation has no responsibility whatsoever to pay people a wage they can live on in such a way that permits them and their families to take any meaningful part in the abundance of American middle-class life. Corporations and their employees have not always thought this way, I can promise you.
In a better world, corporations would pay their people enough to share in that abundance. In this world, they can at least pay people enough to buy turkeys.