At 4 o’clock I parked the white and turquoise church bus near the small snow covered playground, across from a row of low-income housing units. Every Tuesday and Thursday I drive the neighborhood picking up kids and taking them to our church for homework help, dinner, and basketball.
An African American boy I didn’t recognize sat in the front seat. He didn’t have a hat on and his snow covered shoes were untied. He told me his name was Jay*, he was in 1st Grade, and his favorite superhero was Spiderman. I asked him. “So who lives at your home with you Jay?” I never assume anything about who’s taking care of a kid.
“My Dad and sister.” Jay said. “My Dad’s the CHEF at McDonalds.” He practically shouted the word Chef, he was so proud. “…and he makes A LOT of burgers.” I smiled back at him. “That’s pretty cool.”
And as I drove the bus up and down streets lined with one story homes Jay described the grill and deep fryer to the kid next to him. It was clear that Jay LOVED McDonald’s…the fries, the cheese, the ice-cream. And as Jay raved about McDonald’s I stopped outside the neighborhood apartment buildings picking up lines of kids. Some with hats, some with boots, a few had gloves. But almost all of them have parents who worked long hours at minimum wage jobs.
It was surprising to hear Jay rave about his Dad working at McDonald’s. Over the last year story after story has come out describing how McDonald’s has mistreated its minimum wage works. Like when 27-year-old Nancy Salgado called the McResource Line, a service provided to McDonald’s workers who need help with issues like child and health care.*You can ask about things like food pantries. Are you on SNAP? SNAP is Supplemental Nutritional Assistance [Program] — food stamps … You would most likely be eligible for SNAP benefits,” a McResource representative said.*
There was this sample budget that McDonald’s put out for their employees who they expect to work TWO JOBS. Which, if you do the math, doesn’t include heating your house during a polar vortex or…wait for it…money for food.
They left food out of their budget because McDonald’s expects the federal government to pick up the tab for their minimum wage worker’s groceries. Businessweek.com reported,52 percent of families of fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, compared with 25 percent of the workforce as a whole. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program accounted for nearly $4 billion of the $7 billion figure.***
I parked the bus outside the church. When we got inside I helped Jay tie his shoes, gave him a hat and gloves, helped him finish his math homework, and then sloppy Joe’s for dinner. Jay told me most nights his dad doesn’t come home till after dark. Some nights Jay makes dinner for himself and his sister, or they go to a friend’s house. Some nights they just don’t eat.
As I dropped off the kids last Tuesday night, President Obama was calling on US businesses to raise the minimum wage. In his State of the Union Address, standing in front of the US Congress he said,A family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.
And while Obama was speaking these words, I was sitting in the front seat of the church bus watching Jay walk up the steps to his house. He turned and waved to me. There were no lights on in his duplex. So I waited as he unlocked the door to an empty home, the driveway still un-shoveled from the weekend’s snow.
Jay’s eventually gonna figure out that McDonald’s pay scale was the reason his father wasn’t home much. Why his father couldn’t help him finish his homework, make dinner, or read him a story good night.
And when he does, McDonald’s will probably stop being his favorite restaurant.
After I got home I scanned YouTube for the speech highlights and top pundit responses. I heard a flurry of rhetoric about Presidential Executive Orders and the mid-term elections in the fall. One Fox News pundit in an expensive suit said, “Why not raise the minimum wage to a $100,000 an hour?” in a sarcastic tone.
And as they shouted their talking points I thought about Jay. He was probably still sitting on the couch in an empty house, his 1st grade homework spread out on the coffee table, waiting for his dad…The Chef at his favorite restaurant…to come home.
I tell you about Jay, because unfortunately his story is not unique. The minimum wage is hurting thousands of families like Jay’s.
Raising the minimum wage shouldn’t be decided according to who wins political points.
It shouldn’t be about the increased cost of a Big Mac.
It should be about making sure kids like Jay have a parent home when they get back from school.
Ensuring that a father can work 40 hours a week and be home in time to put dinner – made with food he was able to buy – on the table to eat with his family before they sit down to work on homework.
*Jay is a not is actual name.