The American dream: Survival is not an aspiration

Equal opportunity and upward mobility is a long-lost American Dream.

"Working at McDonald's is not indicative of all a person can accomplish, nor should it be a sentence to limited opportunity," writes Sarah Kendzior [Reuters]

On June 12, 2013, Low Pay Is Not Okay, a group fighting to raise wages for fast food workers, released a video criticising a budgeting guide created by McDonald’s. The guide showed that McDonald’s workers cannot survive on a McDonald’s salary. Aside from including dubious figures – $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating – the guide left out essentials like child care, food, and clothing. Low Pay Is Not Okay noted that even by McDonald’s’ own calculations, workers would need at least $15 per hour to make ends meet. The video went viral, and the guide was widely criticised.

But some argued that the guide was reasonable. “When I lived in St. Louis, my roommate and I each paid $425 per month [in rent],” wrote the Washington Post’s Timothy B. Lee, ignoring that St. Louis fast food workers are on strike because they cannot afford to live on their current wages. He praised the guide for “offering practical advice on how to live on a modest income”, a sentiment echoed by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, who deemed it “an extremely conventional collection of good financial advice”.

Defenders of the McDonald’s budget use the same word to describe it: realistic. (Both Drum and Lee use this term.) The logic is that if people can literally survive on minimum wage – that is, not drop dead – then their wages are justified. Ignored in the plea for realism is the day-to-day reality of McDonald’s workers – not whether they can live, but how. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, privation should not come with the job description, and survival should not be an aspiration.

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“Worrying about the future is the hardest part, because at $7.25, I don’t have a future,” wrote Stephanie Sanders, a McDonald’s worker, in an essay for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Like many fast food workers, Sanders is an adult who never thought she would end up in the food service industry. While the unemployment rate in America has remained largely steady in 2013, the underemployment rate has soared, and Sanders, a former saleswoman, has found herself trapped. Her temporary job has become a permanent sentence.

As economic analyst Robert Reich observes, “Being wealthy in America today means not having to come across anyone who isn’t.”  For the last decade, the American media have railed against the “obesity crisis”, blaming fast food outlets for poor public health. That the people who prepare this food lack the money to eat, or feed their children – “We all worry about going hungry or ending up homeless,” writes Sanders – attracts far less outrage.

Journalist Mark Oppenheimer calls the elite Americans obsessed with local and organic food “the new Puritans” – and like the old Puritans, they tend to have a Calvinist take on those less fortunate. “Most of the middle-class ‘liberal’ parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society,” he writes. The plight of the McDonald’s worker, like McDonald’s itself, is seen as outside their purview.

The myth of upward mobility

This lapse in priorities – in which things we buy are thought to be morally superior to people who sell them – parallels a change in the American perception of employment and social status. Jobs are no longer jobs but symbolic positions, indicative of where you come from and determinative of where you go.

The McDonald’s worker, the argument goes, deserves what she gets because she is a McDonald’s worker. The professional, it is said, deserves her success because she is a professional. But over the last decade, the barriers to entry for white-collar professions have dramatically increased while the pathways out of poverty have eroded. The job you work increasingly reflects the money you already had.

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Upward mobility was once the hallmark of the American dream. Downward wages have made that dream unachievable for Americans born poor. One McDonald’s worker, Devonte Yates, is struggling to complete an Associate’s Degree in criminal justice – the path to a stable life through education so often recommended. But Yates can barely buy food on McDonald’s wages, much less pay his tuition.

Education is a luxury the minimum wage worker cannot afford. This message is passed on to their children. “My son is about to graduate from kindergarten, and I don’t even have enough money to get his cap and gown, and that’s only $20,” says McDonald’s worker Carman Iverson.

While many service workers live in poverty, well-off and well-educated professional workers increasingly find themselves working for poverty wages or for nothing at all. The Atlantic is one of many media outlets who covered the plight of the underpaid McDonald’s worker – while simultaneously refusing to pay many of their own writers.

Young Americans seeking full-time employment tend to find their options limited to two paths: one of low-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of wealth. America is not only a nation of temporary employees – the Walmart worker on a fixed-day contract, the immigrant struggling for a day’s pay in a makeshift “temp town” – but of temporary jobs: intern , adjunct , fellow.

Like their counterparts in the service industry, these short-term prestige positions frequently offer no benefits, no health care, and in the case of the intern, no salary. They require that you have the money to move to switch jobs year after year – impossible for many, but easy for those with cash to spare. In the end, college graduates who trained for white-collar professions often cannot afford to take them, and end up, instead, working at a place like McDonald’s.

Post-recession America runs on a contingency economy based on prestige and privation. The great commonality is that few are paid enough to live instead of simply survive.

The importance of Helen Thomas

On July 20, 2013, the journalist Helen Thomas died at age 92. Thomas was a seminal Washington reporter who covered every president since John F. Kennedy, but she came from humble means. Her father, an immigrant from Lebanon, was illiterate, but he encouraged her to get an education. She earned a BA in English from Wayne State University in her native Detroit. She moved to Washington DC and worked as a waitress – one could once afford to live in DC on a waitress’s salary – and then got a clerical job at the Washington Daily News, which led to a job with United Press Service.

Helen Thomas worked her way up from the bottom. She did not buy her opportunities, because exorbitant journalism schools and unpaid internships did not exist. Her time in the service industry was not perceived as indicative of her abilities or her future path.

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Today, a reporter of Thomas’s modest background is out of luck. Journalist David Dennis argues that requiring unpaid internships shuts out voices from poor communities by denying those who hail from them the ability to work: “Opinions or perspectives reflecting my own come few and far between. How many journalists can say they have firsthand knowledge of the mentality of someone from the inner-city? Many of these voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.”

Mistaking wealth for virtue is a cruelty of our time. By treating poverty as inevitable for parts of the population, and giving impoverished workers no means to rise out of it, America deprives not only them but society as a whole. Talented and hard-working people are denied the ability to contribute, and society is denied the benefits of their gifts. Poverty is not a character flaw. Poverty is not emblematic of intelligence. Poverty is lost potential, unheard contributions, silenced voices.

Working at McDonald’s is not indicative of all a person can accomplish, nor should it be a sentence to limited opportunity. The service industry is increasingly where Americans end up, as pre-recession jobs are replaced with part-time, poverty-wage work. If temporary jobs are a permanent problem, we need to improve their conditions – along with those of the white-collar jobs to which many aspire but cannot afford to take.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter:  @sarahkendzior