New Orleans A surprisingly balanced column by Carl Bialik, the “Numbers Guy” at the Wall Street Journal, tried to look at the recent headlines trying to slam the fast food industry over the fact that an estimated $7 billion in public benefits was somehow subsidizing the low wages of the millions of fast food workers. Bialik correctly makes the point, when he argues that consensus exists on all sides of the debate, that $7 billion is not that big a deal when you reckon with the fact that it only represents 2% of the total expenditures on such public benefits.
Look, all of us want higher wages for workers, especially lower waged service workers in food and retailing, and we need to be aggressive in going for it, but as we critique the practices and business models of major corporations we should exercise some restraint around our claims about lower waged workers and their families receiving their full, legally entitled rights to public benefits. Regardless of what it may mean for their companies, these benefits are critical for their workers and in fact we need the companies to actually do a better job of making sure their workforce gets full benefit of entitlements, rather than throwing a bit of political shaming dynamite into a crowded room. Who are we trying to move with these kinds of arguments? Are we trying to give more fuel to the rightwing and the Republicans for their incessant fights to rollback on benefits? I wonder.
Phil Mattera and a host of others following his lead have done great work on dozens of campaigns and corporations on the issues of corporate tax subsidies for developments. These are pure subsidies and often straightforward giveaways that often cripple the tax base and leave the biscuit cookers paying the bills for the big boys. Walmart and others are masters of these machinations, and we need to hit them everywhere we can.
Public benefit entitlements are a different matter. We actually need to encourage these companies to do more to increase what I have called in my book, Citizen Wealth, “maximum eligible participation.” This is about people who are workers and their family’s income security, and, frankly, the more secure our families are financially, the more likely, and actively, they are going to be in organizing and advocating for higher wages. We need companies to provide enrollment information on the Affordable Care Act because many of their workers will qualify for tax credits and cost sharing, not in spite of it. We need McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and even the Walmarts of the country to give out information, make computer terminals available for applications and electronic enrollment, and have their human resources people aggressive in making sure that if their employees can get food stamps, that they do get them, as well as EITC and any other benefits where they qualify.
The studies about public benefits and low wages mean well, but we have to do right here or the unintended consequences of attacking corporations about their workers access to public benefits is on us, not them, and we need them to step up, not step aside.