The Sad Truths Behind the Happy Meals

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The advertisements would have us believe that fast-food restaurants are the savior of the working parent, too tired to cook and in need of a quick, reasonably priced way to feed the family.   Fast-food has become such a part of American culture that one can barely imagine a town without several popular chains lining the streets.   However, people seem to be getting hip to something we should’ve known all along:  the fast-food industry is pulling a fast one on us, in more ways than one.    

Where to start?  How about the most obvious place:  fast-food is not good for you.  The burgers, fried chicken, fries, and milkshakes that so many consume are exceedingly high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt, and are a major factor in the country’s struggle with obesity.  The fast-food industry is notorious for its marketing toward children, who they count on to develop the habit of eating fast-food early.   This makes them prone not only to obesity, but the many health issues that can follow, from heart problems to diabetes. 

It is poor and minority communities that disproportionately bear the brunt of unhealthy fast-food.  Fast-food restaurants are so common in low-income neighborhoods, that in 2008 the Los Angeles City Council passed a ban on the new construction of fast-food restaurants in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.   Research has shown that poor, minority neighborhoods are likely to lack healthy food options, and fast-food is often the most convenient and affordable alternative.  As more and more consumers become aware of the negative health impacts of fast-food and choose healthier and more expensive options, those with low incomes are often forced to rely on the far less expensive fast-food option even when they know better.   And the industry knows where its bread is buttered.  One disturbing study found that fast-food restaurants are sixty percent more likely to direct their advertisements toward kids in black neighborhoods than in white ones. 

Shifting Costs from Large Corporations to Taxpayers

Getting poor, minority children hooked on junk food is just one way the fast-food industry is getting over on us.  Workers in the fast-food industry get paid among the lowest wages of any occupation.  In New York, most fast-food occupations pay an average of around $9.00 an hour.  This is why, as a recent study from the University of California-Berkeley reported, seven billion dollars per year are spent nationally on public assistance programs for fast-food workers.   The wages these workers bring home simply are not enough to provide basic necessities such as food and health care for themselves or their families.    A report from the organization Demos found that fast-food CEOs make more than 1,000 times the average fast-food worker’s wage, by far the largest gap in any industry.  So as the taxpayer provides the food stamps and Medicaid that fast-food workers are forced to rely on due to their meager wages, the industry’s executives are laughing all the way to the bank. 

Workers in the industry have had enough.  Over the last two and a half years, “The Fight for 15” has organized around the demands of fast-food workers for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union.  Fast-food workers across the country have participated in strikes and other forms of protest to demand a living wage.  And their message is resonating.  Fifteen dollars an hour has become the new progressive standard for minimum wage increases and Seattle, San Francisco, and most recently, Los Angeles have all agreed to raise their minimum wage to $15 in the coming years. 

Survey: Majority of New Yorkers Support $15 an hour Minimum Wage

Here in New York, where the minimum wage will be increasing to $9.00 an hour in 2016, there is a sign of hope for fast-food workers.  Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the formation of a Wage Board to determine if there should be a new minimum wage covering workers in the fast-food industry.  I testified at the New York City hearing on June 15th, where workers who are part of the Fight for 15 movement spoke about their hardships trying to make ends meet on insufficient hours and wages at fast-food jobs.  The fact that those speaking were working for some of the wealthiest companies in the world is a damning indictment of the industry. 

The Wage Board will be giving their recommendation to the State Labor Commissioner in July and we strongly urge them to support a $15 an hour minimum wage for fast-food workers.  According to the results of CSS’s annual Unheard Third survey, most New York City residents want to see the minimum wage rise to that level for all workers.  Three-quarters of New Yorkers are in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage, including two-thirds who are strongly in favor.  Support cuts across income level and political party.  The time has clearly come to help low-wage workers in billion dollar industries make a living wage.   The public should not be subsidizing fast-food restaurants that simply don’t need, or deserve, any favors.

Issues Covered

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