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Can you live on that? Fast food targeted by minimum wage protests

Published: Friday, Aug. 2 2013 8:30 p.m. MDT

Much of the dispute hinges on who these workers are or ought to be.

Those who favor goosing the minimum wage see the fast-food worker as an adult, often a single parent, supporting a family. Their critics see the jobs as aimed at young and unskilled entry-level workers.

About half of minimum wage workers in 2012 were over 25 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The teen share of the minimum wage market has dropped from one quarter to 16 percent over the past 10 years, suggesting that teens are being squeezed out of entry-level jobs by older unskilled workers.

Critics of minimum wage hikes argue that high unemployment rates among young workers will be driven yet higher by increased wage costs for unskilled labor.

By 2012, 17.8 percent of hourly workers had a college degree, according to BLS numbers, up from 13 percent in 2002.

It was unclear from the McDonald’s worksheet whether that employee was meant to have a family. The worksheet has no line for child care and assumes two full-time jobs, atypical of a parent.

And yet, one in six fast-food employees is a single parent, acknowledged Mike Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policy Institute, a free market advocacy group with industry ties.

Poor targeting?

“We can have one of two things,” Saltsman said. “We can have a $15 minimum wage, or we can have the entry-level opportunities that we have right now. But we can’t have both.”

Saltsman sees a minimum wage hike as a poorly targeted social welfare program, further reducing employment for those who would prefer to work for less rather than not work at all. His answer for poor people struggling to support families on low wages is income-based social welfare support.

The biggest welfare recipient in the United States is Walmart, according to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, because its low-income employees inhale food stamps, Medicaid and earned income tax credits, leaving taxpayers to cover the gap between a living wage and what their employer pays.

Sanders made the charge in a recent heated exchange on CNN with Holz-Eakin, who in a subsequent interview was quick to dispute the anti-Walmart rhetoric.

“Only about 1 percent of Walmart employees work at minimum wage,” Holz-Eakin said. But he readily observes that far too many poor people are attempting to live on extremely low wages.

Holz-Eakin argues that in addition to not addressing the root problem of a dearth of quality jobs, the push to increase the minimum wage is poorly targeted as a poverty solution. It tends, he argues, to benefit the children of affluent parents just as much as it benefits the single mother trying to support a child.

Instead, he argues, hiking the minimum wage will result in yet higher teen and low-skill unemployment — benefiting those who do manage to find work regardless of their need, while leaving many unemployed or cutting hours for many who need work.

“If you want to worry about poor people, then first identify them as poor and then find a government program that addresses their poverty,” Holz-Eakin said. “The minimum wage doesn’t do that.”

Stoking demand

“The median age for a fast food worker now is 29,” said Rebecca Smith, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, which is playing a major role supporting the fast-food strikes. “And about 90 percent of workers making less than $10 an hour are adults, and about one-third of them have some sort of college education.”

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