Report shows majority of fast food workers on government assistance

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Sureya Melkonian/Staff

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Roughly one-half of the friendly faces serving you at your local fast-food chain rely on public assistance programs to survive, according to a report by UC Berkeley and University of Illinois researchers published Tuesday.

The report, entitled “The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry,” found that 52 percent of fast-food workers’ families require some sort of government program, from Medicaid to food stamps, to supplement extraordinarily low wages — costing roughly $7 billion per year. In the entire workforce, the percentage of workers requiring such assistance is 25 percent, making the fast-food industry’s proportion double that of the nation’s workforce as a whole.

The report was created in response to months of worker protests across the country regarding wage increases and rights for unskilled workers, according to Sylvia Allegretto, one of the report’s authors and an economist at the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

“There’s sort of this public image of fast-food workers being teenagers or students, but over two-thirds are the main breadwinners in their families,” said Ken Jacobs, a co-author of the report and chair of the campus Center for Labor Research and Education. “These jobs and the income from these jobs are core to families’ incomes by and large.”

One of the most recent developments in the national minimum wage controversy was California Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2016. The increase is long overdue but would be more effective if implemented immediately rather than over the course of the next three years, the researchers said.

“It is absolutely a step in the right direction,” Jacobs said. “In terms of people earning enough to survive and support their families, it’s still not going to be enough, but it is a clear positive step.”

The report also aims to dispel common myths surrounding unskilled, low-income jobs by proving that workers’ low wages cost the nation a tremendous amount of money through various in-kind transfers.

“We could be using that (money) to build up our communities, invest in our schools, fix our roads and create good-paying jobs,” said Jonathan Westin, director of Fast Food Forward, a labor rights movement.

The report, however, has drawn criticism from organizations such as the National Restaurant Association for misrepresentation of data, such as the inclusion of Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax refund that is separate from the traditional classification of government entitlement programs.

“America’s restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, in a statement. “These misleading efforts use a very narrow lens and selective data to attack the industry for their own purposes.”

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].