Living Wages, Living Work: A Humanist Sermon

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://batman-news.com Anton

    “That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, plus rent is due on the 15th and the landlord is a real prick.” Timothy 4:10

  • Elizabeth

    There are street preachers I pass every day on my way to the subway. They are usually either condemning abortion or urging people to get saved. One day I stopped and asked the woman if they teach their members about contraception. She said that they teach the young people in their church about abstinence. And I said “Well I’m married. What if I can’t afford to have a child right now?” and she said “WHY DO YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR BABY?!” and I said “I’m using contraception so I don’t have any babies.” and she said “Oh, you know, poor people, back in the time before we had food stamps, and medicaid, all we had was prayer. And God saw us through. Pray and you will be able to take care of your baby.”

    So yes. Evangelizing people know what they are doing. Where’s Reverend Billy when you need him? (Oh, right.)

  • Nancy McClernan

    Excellent editorial. And don’t forget that while at the same time corporations like Walmart are allowing the taxpayers to pick up the slack, they spend millions to support right-wing causes which includes of course cutting the very taxes that pay for the social safety net that Walmart employees rely on.

    http://makingchange.forrespect.org/files/2013/06/Political-Giving-Analysis-Jun-2013.pdf

    If this is not the definition of evil, what is?

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    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).

    -Wouldn’t a large increase in the minimum wage just lead to Wal-Mart replacing human cashiers with self-checkouts and McDonalds closing unprofitable restaurants?

    For McDonalds, 5.503 billion dollars of worldwide profit per year/~760,000 U.S. workers ≈ $7240 per year.

  • skyblue

    With regards to the Walmart and McDonald’s stories, I wonder if that isn’t part of a larger phenomenon of people doing everything they can to create or exacerbate a major problem, and then patting themselves on the back for the very smallest, insignificant amount of “helping”. I’m sure there are plenty of churches full of people who vote and lobby against any legislation to help actual people out of actual poverty, but hey, their church is serving a Christmas meal to homeless people, so they think of themselves as friends to the poor. Or opposing sex education, contraception access, and abortion, but, hey, here’s a free pack of diapers, now you’re all set with that unplanned pregnancy, right?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wal-mart is already doing that – meanwhile Costco, which pays a living wage, is eliminating self-serve checkouts.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/costco-is-eliminating-self-checkout-2013-6

    As far as self-service food, that’s been tried:

    The format was threatened by the arrival of fast food, served over the counter and with more payment flexibility than traditional Automats, in the Automats’ core urban markets in the 1970s; their remaining appeal was strictly nostalgic. Another contributing factor to their demise was inflation of the 1970s, making the food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, in a time before bill acceptors commonly appeared on vending equipment.[citation needed]

    At one time there were 40 Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone. The last one closed in 1991. Horn and Hardart converted most of its New York City locations to Burger Kings. At the time, the quality of the food was described by some customers as on the decline.[3][4]

    In an attempt to bring back automats in New York City, a company called Bamn! opened a new East Village store in 2006[5] but it closed in 2009.[6]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automat

    And from the Center for Economic and Policy Research paper “Why Does the Minimum Wage Have No Discernible Effect on Employment?”

    Economists have conducted hundreds of studies of the employment impact of the minimum wage. Summarizing those studies is a daunting task, but two recent meta-studies analyzing the research conducted since the early 1990s concludes that the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.

    The most likely reason for this outcome is that the cost shock of the minimum wage is small relative to most firms’ overall costs and only modest relative to the wages paid to low-wage workers. In the traditional discussion of the minimum wage, economists have focused on how these costs affect employment outcomes, but employers have many other channels of adjustment. Employers can reduce hours, non-wage benefits, or training. Employers can also shift the composition toward higher skilled workers, cut pay to more highly paid workers, take action to increase worker productivity (from reorganizing production to increasing training), increase prices to consumers, or simply accept a smaller profit margin. Workers may also respond to the higher wage by working harder on the job. But, probably the most important channel of adjustment is through reductions in labor turnover, which yield significant cost savings to employers.

    http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/min-wage-2013-02.pdf

    Although really Walmart needs to be boycotted no matter what. They’re just evil.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiSmlmXp-aU

  • skyblue

    back in the time before we had food stamps, and medicaid, all we had was prayer

    When people say stuff like this, they come across as shockingly naive about life “back in the day” – I wonder if that woman has any idea what life was like for people in desperate situations before public assistance, and I sure bet she has no idea how widespread abortion was, both the back-alley variety and the kind done by an actual doctor if a woman was lucky enough to be able to afford it!

  • smrnda

    Something I learned about McDonalds the other day. I know a guy whose father once worked for McDonalds corporate. He said that the system is pretty much rigged that the corporation will *never* lose money from an unprofitable location. All the risk is diverted onto the franchisee. If a location is unprofitable and closes, the franchisee will lose, but not McDonalds. Corporate sets much of the policies and even decides where, geographically, you can franchise. You might have a great location in mind but if it isn’t want McDonalds wants, they’ll have you open a franchise at another location. McDonalds is pretty much about the people with the most $ making sure the never take any risks.

    About the increase on minimum wage and its effect – if minimum wage increased, people whose wages would increase would likely spend the extra money since cost of living are regressive, so it isn’t necessarily just a cut in profits – it could end up meaning some level of increased consumer spending owing to lower income consumers having the highest propensity to spend and the multiplier effect, so I don’t think it’s so totally straightforward as to what will happen.

  • smrnda

    yeah, I get really sick of the ‘back in the old days’ dreck myself. There is a great book called “The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible.” Poor people prayed, had half their kids die and dropped dead at 50 of pneumonia or tuberculosis after a lifetime of work in a mine where half the workers end up disabled or dead.

  • L.Long

    They are NOT naive. They are bold faced liars!!
    Because all the ones I know like that collect all the welfare they can. And they probably do abstinence cuz no one wants them.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    That McDonalds’ sample budget allocated twenty dollars a month for insurance. The fuck?

  • Azkyroth

    “Uh, isn’t it one of the core tenets of your faith that abstinence isn’t 100% effective in preventing pregnancy?”

  • L.Long

    Please you are all being very unfair to the poor owners of the Walmart or similar companies.
    They are only making just enough to make their bills. Think of what would happen if they could not make those millions for themselves!
    The 12 people making minimum wage cleaning the 5 acre lawns would be out of a minimum wage job. The 24 person staff caring for the 24 bedroom home-out. The crews flying and caring for their jets-out. The crews and workers caring for the 100ft boat-out. All the slave wage people on the foreign island caring for their 2nd 100 room mansion would have to get a pay cut to 10cents a day. SO you see they have bills they must meet to keep so many working at minimum wage or less.
    It is very tough to write with sarcasm & irony.

  • PrimateZero

    Not to mention the small fortune spent keeping employees from organizing a labor union. If they would just pay their employees better and treat them with a little respect they wouldn’t have to worry about unionization. It’s just absurd.

  • Nancy McClernan
  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Wouldn’t a large increase in the minimum wage just lead to Wal-Mart replacing human cashiers with self-checkouts and McDonalds closing unprofitable restaurants?

    I think that if there are jobs that can be eliminated or automated, we can count on these corporations to do that anyway, regardless of what the minimum wage is. That just makes it all the more important that the remaining jobs which can’t be automated pay a living wage.

    For McDonalds, 5.503 billion dollars of worldwide profit per year/~760,000 U.S. workers ˜ $7240 per year.

    Yep. For workers who make $15,000 per year or less, that’s a very nice raise, and as you’ve just shown, McDonald’s could achieve it without raising their prices by a cent. If they did raise their prices, even a little, they could do more. Since their current prices are only possible because of implicit taxpayer subsidies, I think that’s a reasonable thing to ask.

    As Mother Jones pointed out in a recent article, Wal-Mart could achieve the same by merely ceasing its multibillion-dollar stock buybacks, which have no effect on the company other than to increase the value of their founders’ holdings, and instead redirect that money to compensation.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I think that if there are jobs that can be eliminated or automated, we can count on these corporations to do that anyway, regardless of what the minimum wage is.

    -That would depend on the cost of automation. In any case, an increase in the minimum wage would, ceteris paribus, certainly make self-checkouts look more attractive to major retailers paying low wages to their cashiers.

    For workers who make $15,000 per year or less, that’s a very nice raise, and as you’ve just shown, McDonald’s could achieve it without raising their prices by a cent.

    -And with losing all their profit! Though McDonalds probably could afford a raise of a few thousand dollars a year for all its U.S. employees, my $7240 per year figure is the maximum raise for all its U.S. employees McDonalds could afford.

    If they did raise their prices, even a little, they could do more.

    -Maybe, maybe not. That would depend on the elasticity of demand for fast food.

    As Mother Jones pointed out in a recent article, Wal-Mart could achieve the same by merely ceasing its multibillion-dollar stock buybacks, which have no effect on the company other than to increase the value of their founders’ holdings, and instead redirect that money to compensation.

    -Good point.

  • Kenneth Polit

    Sing it with me…Look for the union label…

  • RayRobertson

    Although a Christian, I don’t have a lot of respect for the RCC. Still, Pope Francis’s words are supportive of some of your thinking:

    “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” —Tuesday, 11/26/13

  • Carol Lynn

    Which is why I now always, always, always used a manned checkout lane. (Besides I hate being treated like a moron by that automated voice on the self-checkout lanes. I once said, “Just shut up, bitch, I know where to put the damn can” to the machine and got a huge laugh out of the lone human manning the self-checkout stations.)

  • smrnda

    Here are my take on the self-checkout lanes.

    I see them popping up a lot, and more and more stores having more self-checkout lanes and fewer regular lanes. The newest grocery store in town has 6 self-checkout stations and only 4 total conventional lanes, and I’ve never seen more than 2 open at a time. Consumers might try to choose lanes with human cashiers, but businesses really can remove that option and only incredibly stubborn resistance on the part of consumers will make a dent. Eventually, I suspect the battle for human cashiers will be lost.

    The other deal is that working as a cashier is a shit job, really boring, with a high potential for verbal abuse from customers. These aren’t jobs people want, they’re jobs people get stuck doing. I’d much rather see some investment made in better jobs (I know, unlikely to happen) than just ‘hey, let’s keep people shuffling groceries across a scanner.’ I suspect a lot of these people could be put to work in much better ways, but that would require a government with guts to raise taxes on high earners and put people to work.

  • smrnda

    I wonder if those behaviors might be the product of a kind of cognitive bias. You can show a person a graph with statistics that says ‘fewer teen moms with more sex education.’ These numbers represent real people, but maybe some people can’t connect stats and reality, so they see ‘give single mom diapers’ as real because they *saw it personally* but can’t process other types of information.

  • http://uzzas.blogspot.com/2010/06/introduction.html uzza

    Evangelist: “Pray and you’ll be able to take care of your baby”
    Person: “How many calories in a prayer?”

  • jonb

    Minimum wage in Australia just under $17.00. Price of a big mag in Austrailia $4.80

  • David Simon

    One data point does not a pattern make.


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