When a new Burger King opens in town, many of our newly elected leaders probably think the King should pay his burger-flipping serfs a “living wage.”
The living wage is a fuzzy idea. It suggests enough to cover the costs of living, even though costs of living vary from person to person and family to family and certainly place to place. In general, I think it’s meant to cover some median cost of living for some median-sized family. My family of three in a micropolitan city in the Midwest would seem to qualify.
But that’s the problem, actually.
My wife is our family’s sole breadwinner. Maybe if Burger King offered a living wage, she could apply for a job there, and all three of us could get by. I’ll admit, that sounds nice. With my wife making a Whopper of a wage, I could stay home with our son. Sure, Burger King would have to charge a little more for its burgers and fries in order to make that happen. This, I’m told, is a small price to pay to live in a just, equitable society. This, I’m told, is “fair.”
But what happens when my son goes to school? What if I decide to spend some of my wide-open school days at Burger King, frying fries alongside my Burger Queen? My family would be making more than a living wage. We’d be making two living wages. Compared to a single-earner household, ours would be a Double Whopper.
And what happens when my son becomes a teenager? If I’m frying fries instead of sitting around the house, you can bet he’ll do the same. That would make a trio of Jensens — Burger King, Burger Queen, and Whopper Jr. — working side by side (by side), each making a living wage. Triple Whopper.
This raises another question: Why do teenagers need a living wage? They’re not supporting whole households, usually. No matter: widespread living-wage laws would ensure that every working teenager and every adult working a side job would add another living wage to the household, stacking living wage on top of living wage on top of living wage. I know we would.
But what’s wrong with that? Ironically, the same people who advocate for living wages provide the answer. Two answers, really. First, they tell us that current wages are far, far below living wages. Second, we hear that the Burger Kings of the world are interested only in profit. If these two points are true, then we can expect a living-wage law to jack up prices significantly: After all, Burger King will have to pay far, far more in wages; and because it’s so profit-driven, it’ll have to pass the cost on to us, the burger-eaters.
If you think that won’t affect you personally — perhaps you’re a salad-eater — just ask yourself how much money you spend on goods and services brought by workers who make less than a living wage. And not just workers you see at the checkout or at your table, either, but workers anywhere along the supply chain. All of us consumers would see increased prices in nearly all sectors of the economy. In other words, the costs of living would increase for everybody.
Of course, my Triple Whopper of a family might be OK paying the higher prices. But what about the family with a single-earner? How can we help them?
Don’t worry. We’ll just pay all workers a living wage.
There’s a whopper for the ages. All of them.
P.A. Jensen of Duluth is a freelance data analyst who writes about politics, sports, and rural life at RuralityCheck.com. He wrote this for the News Tribune.