A few days ago, progressive blogs reported on the “McResource Line”, an instantly infamous (and quickly-disappeared) website created by McDonald’s to offer comically insensitive health and financial advice to its 1.8 million employees, who collectively earn $7.75 an hour on average.
Among the stress-reducing tips on this site were: quit complaining about your low-wage job (“Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining”), chew gum, sing songs, and go to church (“People who attend more church services tend to have lower blood pressure”). The site also offered helpful advice to McDonald’s employees who may be experiencing food insecurity: “Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” If that fails, “Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash.” This is of a piece with McDonald’s corporate helpline matter-of-factly instructing its employees how to apply for food stamps, or their ludicrous sample budget that included no money for food, clothing or heat.
Wal-Mart is another frequent offender: you may have heard about the Wal-Mart store in Ohio that held a food drive for its own employees (actually there were at least two that did this). Wal-Mart, like McDonald’s, is also notorious for paying such low wages that most of its employees need food stamps or other public assistance to survive.
McDonald’s and Wal-Mart aren’t the only giant corporations that pay poverty wages, but they’re among the most egregious. As these stories show, they’re fully aware that they don’t pay their employees enough to live on. And they profit handsomely from it: to the tune of $5 billion in 2012 for McDonald’s, $15 billion for Wal-Mart. In effect, these huge, wealthy corporations are parasitizing public assistance programs, relying on taxpayer subsidies to keep their employees afloat. This is an unacceptable business model, and we can and should demand that these companies shoulder the cost of their own operations rather than passing them on to all of us. The most straightforward way to accomplish this is to increase the minimum wage (currently stuck at $7.25 an hour federally, about $15,000 per year or less).
The image of fast-food or retail jobs being staffed by teenagers working over their summer vacation is no longer accurate, if it ever was. More and more, America is a service economy, and for millions of people, a job at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart is their job – including people who have families to support. It’s a matter of basic justice that people who work for a living should make a living wage, especially when they work for highly profitable businesses that are well able to afford it.
And as atheists and humanists, we have one more reason to insist that employers pay a living wage: people mired in poverty, lacking stability and security, will always be susceptible to the blandishments of religion. (Remember, again, the McDonald’s helpline advising its employees to go to church.) People who are living on the ragged edge of desperation, who are struggling just to make ends meet and see no hope of bettering their situation, are easy pickings for preachers who promise them pie in the sky. I firmly believe that a rational worldview can and should be adopted by all people, regardless of economic class. But the only way we’ll ever make the illusory appeal of faith fade is if we have something real and worthwhile to offer in its place.