Call her Exhibit A.
Keoshia Parson is not part of any test group or science project. She is a young woman trying to carve out a life working at a fast-food place. Like hundreds of thousands of others like her, she knows the grease-coated truth: No matter how many burgers she flips with one hand, she still needs to reach for a helping hand.
Parson is 22 and works up to 30 hours a week for the $7.25 hourly minimum at a Buffalo-area McDonald’s. She shares an East Side apartment with her teenage sister, shops at thrift stores and can’t afford a car. She also can’t lift the monthly load of rent/utility/food/bus/clothing bills. Despite her sister’s $594 monthly Social Security survivor check (their mom died in 2010), Keoshia qualifies for $140 in food stamps and a voucher that covers half of their $425 monthly rent.
“Sometimes my boyfriend takes me out to eat,” she told me Thursday, as rallies protesting fast-food wages hit 100 cities across America – including a small gathering in Buffalo. “I can’t afford expensive things.”
Nor, unfortunately, can she afford to live without taxpayer help. It is the bane of a minimal minimum wage, the dirty secret of the fast-food industry and a load on taxpayer backs. A recent National Employment Law Center report highlighted the deep-fried truth: Taxpayers subsidize – with food stamps, rent help and health care aid – the low pay, limited hours and lack of benefits of fast-food workers. More than half of the families of low-wage workers get some public assistance, taking $7 billion a year out of taxpayer wallets. It’s a business model that pads the profits of fast-food companies (which contend that low personnel costs enable them to offer low prices) that cumulatively make billions of dollars per year.
It amounts to a compelling argument for a higher minimum wage. In New York, base pay will bump up to $9 an hour by 2016. That amounts to less than $19,000 a year for full-time work. The federal minimum is $7.25, although President Obama said he’d back a Senate push to up it to $10.10 an hour.
“The low wages come at a tremendous social cost to the rest of us,” said Andy Reynolds of Buffalo’s Coalition for Economic Justice. “If fast-food workers were paid a fair wage, they wouldn’t need food stamps and other public programs.”
Meanwhile, Keoshia Parson is torn between getting a second job, or going back to finish her GED.
Bright-eyed and chatty, she was wearing jeans and a knit top on Thursday. “I catch post-holiday sales, or shop at thrift stores,” Parson told me, sitting at the dining room table in her neat apartment. Nearby shelves held ceramic angels, African statuary and framed family photos. “Some people I know pay $54 for a pair of jeans. For $54, I could get a whole outfit.”
Parson’s minimal minimum wage underlines another point: “Paying a fair wage doesn’t just let workers live with dignity,” said Reynolds, of the justice coalition. “It helps create jobs, as people pump their increased pay back into the economy.”
That makes sense to Parson.
“I want to go to cosmetology school, but I can’t afford it,” she told me. “I want a career, not just a job. I want to better myself.”
A bigger paycheck would help her go a long way.