I believe in McDonald’s.

As a vegetarian, this is a strange statement to make, but I’m not talking about the food. As one of the largest employers in the world, McDonald’s has a lot of power, especially in the fast-food industry. Where McDonald’s goes, others will follow.

When McDonald’s moved toward a more humane supply chain, other companies did the same. But while they slightly improved conditions for animals, there’s still room for improvement in how workers are treated. The median minimum wage for fast food workers in the United States is $9.05 an hour. This means that a full-time employee who works 40 hours a week, doesn’t take any vacations and makes the median wage has a yearly salary that’s below the poverty line if they’re supporting two people in their family. Many people are making even less than that with the current federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

And while many of us picture burger-flipping as a job for teens looking to make pocket change, the fact is that in today’s economy, many of the people now working in the fast food industry are long-term employees — adults who are trying to support a family with the only job they can find. And no matter how hard of a worker you are, there are only so many promotions to be had, especially for those without a degree.

Paying a salary that leaves employees below the poverty line means that these workers have full-time jobs and are still unable to support their families. It also means that these families will qualify for many federal aid programs, including food stamps, the Head Start program and various tax credits. Essentially, the government is supplementing some of the income that restaurants aren’t paying their employees.

Simply cutting government benefits and allowing working families to struggle in abject poverty is unconscionable in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. If companies are unwilling to pay their workers enough to get by, the government is in effect forced to subsidize the fast-food industry by stepping in to make up the difference. The government should instead enforce minimum wages high enough so people working a single full-time job don’t need government assistance.

In the past year, fast-food workers across the country have been holding daylong walk outs in an effort to gain higher wages. Employees of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC and many other fast food chains are aiming to raise the minimum wage at these restaurants to $15 an hour. They’ve garnered some publicity, but companies don’t seem to be budging. McDonald’s responded by publishing a ludicrous “sample budget,” which, aside from keeping the late-night shows busy for the next week, assumed that all workers had a second full-time job, monthly health insurance payments of only $20 and mortgage/rent payments of only $600 per month. That’s lower than the rent that many students here pay for one room in a shared house or apartment.

Many companies are making the argument that they can’t afford to move to a $15 minimum wage. Frankly, they just aren’t interested in trying. The fast-food industry has weathered the recession well, and some CEOs, such as McDonald’s James Skinner, are some of the highest paid in the country. Meanwhile, real wages haven’t kept pace with inflation or increases in productivity, so labor is now cheaper than it was 30 years ago. If a company can’t make a profit without government subsidized wages, then they shouldn’t be in business at all — that’s how capitalism works.

As I said, I believe in McDonald’s. I believe that if they invested a little creativity in finding that extra money for wages they could succeed, and other fast food chains would follow. Then, our society would see the benefit of paying people enough to support themselves.

Last time I checked, working one or more full-time jobs and still being unable to support your family has nothing to do with the American Dream. It’s time the “job creators” start creating some jobs that don’t require government subsidies to keep families fed.

Lissa Kryska can be reached at lkkryska@umich.edu.

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