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Why Taxpayers Subsidize Fast-Food Companies to the Tune of Nearly $7 Billion a Year

Why Taxpayers Subsidize Fast-Food Companies to the Tune of Nearly $7 Billion a Year

In addition to short-changing employees and customers, the cheapness of the fast-food industry, which nationally pays its core workers an average of $8.69, leaves taxpayers paying nearly $7 billion annually. That's the major conclusion of a new report, Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry, from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The majority of employees at fast-food restaurants are paid so poorly that they are forced to enroll in public assistance programs, despite the industry making $200 billion a year.

“The taxpayer costs we discovered were staggering,” says Ken Jacobs, chair of UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education and co-author of the report. “People who work in fast-food jobs are paid so little that having to rely on public assistance is the rule, rather than the exception, even for those working 40 hours or more a week.”

Only 28% of core fast-food workers work 40 or more hours per week, compared to 75% of the overall workforce. Unlike the common stereotype of fast-food workers, the report shows more than two-thirds of the industry's core workers are older than 20, 68% are the primary wage earners in their families and more than 25% of them are parents.

"This report shows in stark numbers the larger economic consequences that result from low wages and how it affects all of us, says Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "In a nation as wealthy as the United States, no one who works hard for a living should live in poverty. Underpaying workers affects us all. These highly profitable companies paying poverty wages should raise wages and listen to their workers' demands to form a union. We should also increase the minimum wage, as I have proposed. These steps are not only the right thing to do for low-wage workers, but also the smart thing to do for the economy and for taxpayers."

Fast-food workers receive money from numerous federal programs—receiving benefits at twice the overall rate of the workforce—and the $7 billion total doesn't include state and local programs. The top federal expenditures on fast-food workers are:

  • Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, $3.9 billion per year;
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, $1.04 billion per year; and
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, $82 million per year.

“It just doesn’t make sense that we prepare and cook food for people every day, but instead of being paid enough to feed our own families, many of us can’t afford three meals every day," says Devonte Yates, a McDonald’s worker in Milwaukee who earns $7.25 an hour. "I don’t want to be on food stamps. I’d rather stand on my own two feet. McDonald’s should raise wages so we can afford decent food for ourselves.”

The report was funded by Fast Food Forward, a New York City-based coalition of workers and labor, religious and community groups. Read the full report from UC Berkeley.

A separate report from the National Employment Law Project looks more closely at the top 10 biggest fast-food companies and finds that they alone are responsible for 60% of the nearly $7 billion in public costs associated with their low wages, despite having more than $7.4 billion in profits last year. McDonald's workers alone account for $1.2 billion of public assistance spending each year.

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