David Hoppe

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:: What are people for?

Not what we think

by David Hoppe

Ongoing demonstrations by fast food workers demanding higher pay, along with the renewed effort to raise the federal minimum wage beg a much larger question: What are people for?

Work has been the traditional answer to that question in the United States. Work is the heart of our social contract. It’s through work that we define who we are, create the basis for a better life and, most important, take responsibility for ourselves.

So, after the initial sticker shock of hearing, for example, that McDonald’s workers want $15 per hour, it’s possible to understand where these folks are coming from. Like anybody else, they want a decent life. They’re willing to work for it — being on your feet eight hours a day isn’t easy.

And decent isn’t cheap.

The press has been full of stories about fast food workers being on the job for eight, ten years and making less than $9 an hour. A recording went viral of a McDonald’s worker being told by a corporate rep to supplement her income with tax-supported programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

A study released by a group of labor economists from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana found that 52 percent of fast-food workers rely on public assistance. According to the study, those supplemental benefits cost the government about $7 billion a year. McDonald's Employee Help Line Advises Food Stamps Not Wage Increase Since McDonald’s showed profits of $5.5 billion in 2012, you could argue that the federal government makes fast food’s business model possible.

But hold on. That business model was based on being able to hire high school students and housewives who needed a little extra money. Nobody thought that working at McDonald’s might constitute a “career.”

Yet that’s what’s happened as our economy has gotten harder to break into. There are fewer and fewer jobs for unskilled or inexperienced workers, and the skill sets required in many jobs are getting more and more specialized. People today can consider themselves lucky to land a job flipping burgers. No wonder, then, these folks want to make enough money to live on. From their point of view, they’re trying to be loyal employees. They think their experience — dealing with the public, knowing what it takes to make things run smoothly and, yes, taking responsibility when required — ought to count for something.

The trouble is, whatever happens to fast food pay, it’s likely those jobs, and many more like them, will eventually be eliminated by technology.

Let’s face it: One thing people are is a hassle. That’s why employers replace us with machines wherever and whenever they can. And guess what? Productivity keeps going up in spite of high unemployment and stagnating wages. The stock market is booming, which is a good thing for retirees — people, that is, who don’t have to work anymore.

Look, we don’t even trust ourselves to drive. According to a new poll, 82 percent of Millennials want self-braking cars. Poll

What are people for? Not as much, apparently, as we think.