Editor’s note: As we approach Labor Day, we are pleased to share a series of articles from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops addressing issues covered in this year’s statement on Labor Day by Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB.

If McDonald’s Can’t See How To Live on Minimum Wage, Who Can?

By Molly Fleming-Pierre 

Molly Fleming-Pierre

A few weeks ago, McDonald’s made headlines for advertising a budget journal for its employees living on minimum wage. Presented as a tool to help workers navigate stretched finances, the sample budget revealed the near impossibility of surviving on $7.25 an hour. It assumed workers had two jobs, paid $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating and did not budget money for food or clothing.

If one the largest fast food corporation in the world can’t figure out how balance the books on minimum wage, how can many families?

Every day, millions of low-wage workers struggle paycheck to paycheck, forced to choose between paying bills, seeing a doctor when they are sick, or putting food on the table. It’s easy to miss these workers, often hiding in plain sight. They serve our burgers, care for our aging parents and clean our hotel rooms.

They are fathers like Terrance, who barely gets to see his three daughters between working two low-wage jobs. When his meager paychecks could no longer stretch to cover the rent, Terrance and his family recently became homeless.

They are mothers like Carman, who knows that each month, the food will be gone before there is money to buy more, and she’ll have to watch her children go hungry.

In this rich nation, Terrance and Carman are two among millions who work hard every single day, but who are poor. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 a year. Most low-wage workers have to keep two, even three jobs to have a fighting chance of keeping a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs.

An economic system in which a person can work and still not make ends meet is inherently unjust.

Catholic teaching is unequivocal on this issue – work is fundamental to the dignity of every person. In their document “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops are clear, “We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around.”

As work has an inherent dignity, wages must reflect the value of that dignity. A person making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour full time earns a scant $15,080 a year before taxes. That puts a family of four well below the poverty line of $23,550. The impacts of these “starvation wages” are devastating.

One in five children in this country is poor. That’s 16 million children living in a wrenching kind of poverty that most of us can’t even imagine. If the moral measure of our nation is marked by how we treat our littlest ones, rising inequality that leaves them behind is proof positive our priorities are out of line.

Some days ago I joined Catholics and other people of faith throughout Kansas City to stand with fast food workers taking action for a living wage. That is, the minimum hourly wage required to meet life’s basic needs at full time work.

Hundreds of low-wage workers, many of them carrying their children on their backs, stood in the rain and in the heat to witness to the cause of their own dignity. Nationally, they were joined by thousands who took action in seven cities, calling for work with dignity.

At some point during the hottest part of the day, I crouched down eye to eye with a small boy standing on the front lines. I asked what he was doing on such a nice day, standing in the hot sun with his family. With wide and solemn eyes, he started right back at me. Slowly and carefully he said, “My mama is worth more.”

Indeed she is.

Molly Fleming-Pierre is Policy Director of COMMUNITIES CREATING OPPORTUNITY, Kansas City, Missouri