Monday, July 15, 2013

McDonald's sample budget and convenient explanations of poverty

(Updated below)

I can't comment any more thoroughly on the sheer inanity of McDonald's sample monthly budget for minimum wage employees than Annie-Rose Strasser did over at Think Progress.  It's worth reading in full.  But it's also worth noting that I have never seen a better example of the typical underlying assumption of American poverty.

What is most amazing about this budget is that it was put out without any sense of irony.  The people who published this clearly think it is reasonable--why else would they have published it?  And yet, this is the most effective indictment of McDonald's wage policies there could possibly be.  Twenty dollars for health insurance?  Zero dollars for heating?  No money allotted for food?  The only way to make a McDonald's job look like a livable wage is to make absolutely absurd assumptions.  There can be no more effective indictment of McDonald's wage practices than this--try for yourself to make a life out of this; of course you can't.  If McDonald's policies were intentionally malicious, they would never have published this.

What this says is that the fundamental assumption of poverty in America--that poor people are defective (ie, in this case, poor people have plenty of money but bad money management skills)--runs extraordinarily deep.  The mental contortions and cognitive dissonance required to put together this budget, then declare “You can have almost anything you want as long as you plan ahead and save for it,” is truly astonishing.  No, there can't possibly be anything wrong with our economic system or labor policies!  The people who are poor must be defective!  How convenient, of course, that this understanding absolves McDonald's of any responsibility for a serious and expensive problem.

It's tempting to imagine McDonald's management and executives as greedy robber barons, conniving new ways to oppress their workers as they count their gold coins.  While their decisions are inexcusable, the reality is that the perpetrators of this oppression do so with a clear conscience.  They honestly think that the fault of poverty lies with the individuals, and not in the fact that minimum wage is too low to support a family.  By publishing this budget, they actually thought they were helping.  Of course, none of this makes McDonald's wage policies right; low-wage hell is misery whether those who paved the road to it had good intentions or not.  But this should underscore the raw power of cognitive dissonance and the mindset that creates our social welfare policies: that poverty implies a need for counseling, rather than a need for enough money to purchase basic essentials.

Update 7/20/2013
Paul Campos makes the same point--that poverty does not imply a person is defective--from a different angle (emphasis added):
In fact nothing could be more preposterous than rich people giving poor people advice on how to stretch a dollar.  The absurdity of this is captured perfectly by John Scalzi’s aphorism that “being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.”

I have seen secondhand (like most members of the pundit class, I am not personally poor) a woman feed herself and her three children on a $30 per week grocery budget, for months on end.  I’ve been amazed by her combination of discipline, creativity and self-sacrifice. (A commenter to Scalzi’s post writes: “Growing up poor means realizing twenty years later that Mommy was lying when she said, ‘it’s OK sweetie, I’ve already eaten.’”)

And although this may not be a particularly intellectually nuanced way of making the point, I am of the opinion that any person, corporate or otherwise, who want to “help” this woman by offering her a sample monthly budget is in dire need of a swift kick in the groin.