Thursday, September 5, 2013

Food Fights Symptoms of Unhealthy Economy

Money and food.

Which one can grow on trees?

Next week, Congress resumes discussions over the farm bill, which includes federal nutrition programs, otherwise known as food stamps.  It's a big debate because not only do farmers receive huge subsidies from the government for various crop initiatives, but the number of Americans on food stamps - technically, it's a plastic card called SNAP - has been rising steadily for the past several years.  Conservatives have a particular grievance over that, claiming that too many able-bodied people are staying out of the workforce because the taxpayer gravy train is too rich.

Meanwhile, workers at fast food restaurants across the country have been protesting for higher wages, complaining that it's impossible to live off of what they current earn flipping burgers.

Do you see the disconnect?

First, let's ignore the fact some landowners in America's breadbasket are earning money from us taxpayers hand over fist for not growing certain crops, or for not being able to harvest what they planted.  Conservatives don't really like talking about this thinly-veiled form of agricultural welfare, since it benefits folks who traditionally are more conservative than liberal in their voting patterns.  And not just family farmers, who are becoming extinct; but corporate farmers, who've made food production big business.  While there's certainly nothing wrong with making a profit on what you grow, having taxpayers foot the bill when crop yields are marginal sounds suspiciously like some form of welfare itself.

But we're not talking about welfare for the rich, are we?  We're talking about welfare for the poor, in terms of government programs that are supposed to pay for basic nutrition when Americans might otherwise starve.

Our United States Department of Agriculture runs what started out as a wholly reasonable idea:  helping people put food on the table when economic times were lean.  After all, how can we expect people to go to work and school with empty bellies?  America does not have a food shortage, so how shameful would it be if Americans who need a bit of help paying for groceries don't get it?

Today, however, the USDA's massive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, costs a whopping $81 billion per year.  That's a lot of cabbage by anybody's standards, and one of the reasons why it's become a perennial target of budget-cutting conservatives.  Surely we don't have that many hungry people in the United States, and if we do, they must be lazy louts, mooching off of the system.

Some of SNAP's supporters insist there's surprisingly little evidence of fraud within the program, and that it's simply responding to America's stagnant economy, which explains the recent surge in demand.  Most of the people receiving SNAP benefits are either unable to find work where they live, or work at jobs that pay low wages.  In fact, over half of SNAP recipients are employed when they join the program, and over eighty percent are employed when they leave it.  Roughly half of SNAP recipients live in rural areas, which runs counter to the prevailing idea that they're all a bunch of urban layabouts.  And it's not even like people are living high on the hog with SNAP - it pays roughly $1.50 per meal per person.

But then we get those anecdotal stories about SNAP card abuse, like the one out of Boston last month, in which a "voodoo queen" who pushed a delivery truck off of a freeway with her Cadillac had three SNAP cards in her purse.  Vivencia Bellegarde, an unemployed native of Haiti, even bragged to arresting officers that she got her groceries for free.

Whenever we hear of people like Bellegarde, it's easy to extrapolate her flagrant abuse of welfare programs into a systemic crisis of scams, thievery, and waste.  Which undoubtedly exists to some degree in a government program costing $81 billion a year.  But if it was as widespread as we imagine it to be, would Bellegarde's boasting be all that newsworthy?

And what about those subsidies to farmers that comprise the rest of America's farm legislation?  A mere $293 billion over the past eighteen years.  How much of that do you guesstimate was fraud?

It's difficult to tell how many SNAP recipients are workers in fast-food restaurants, but as some of those workers staged strikes over this past Labor Day weekend, they pointed out the irony of them working around food and depending on food stamps to eat.  They say that 40-hour workweeks in fast-food are rare, since being a full-time employee means employers have to provide costly benefits.  Some food preparers can earn up to $9 an hour, but most earn less than $8.  They think bumping those hourly rates up to $15 an hour will provide a more reasonable wage to help them make ends meet at home.

According to the fast-food industry, theirs is a simple pay rate metric.  Fast-food is basic work that just about anybody can learn to do, and therefore, the pool of potential workers from which the industry can choose is large.  It might not be glamorous work, but neither is it designed to serve as somebody's career.  For practically as long as McDonald's and Burger King have been in business, they've promoted their corporate management suites as the destinations to which their dishwashers and custodians should aspire, fully recognizing that kids couldn't expect to raise a family and buy a house in the 'burbs just by frying hamburger patties until they're 65.  It's not management's fault that most of their employees are either unemployable at any more sophisticated a job, or that the overall economy is suppressing career advancement for people stuck in minimum-wage jobs.

Advocates for fast-food workers point out that profit margins for the corporations running these grease emporiums have been rising, and that their CEO's are earning thousands of dollars per hour, compared with the folks back in the kitchens who are working up even more of a sweat.  The percentage of revenue spent on payrolls at these major fast-food chains has also been decreasing, down to about 23 percent.  There's plenty of room for fast-food chains to spend more on their workers and still turn healthy profits.

If anything in the fast-food business can be called "healthy," that is.

It may very well be that, at least on paper, the Sonic's and Taco Bell's of America's plastic palace empire could afford to pay their workers more, and it's hard to argue that this business model has much ingenuity and inventiveness left in itself to warrant the lush pay rates its executives are still getting.  It's a mature industry by anybody's standards, so how much more of a contribution are the suits in corporate making to their company's bottom lines as opposed to the grunts who are slogging it out every day in front of customers who want their burgers done their way - instantaneously?  With fries.

Hold the brat screaming over there, spilling its drink on the floor while its oblivious parent complains to a guy with a mop about the wrong toy being in the Happy Meal.

You'd have to be desperate to do that for twenty bucks and hour.  Imagine the predicament of folks who already do it for eight.  Then again, doubling the percentage of revenue the industry spends on its payroll won't happen anytime soon, no matter how much those workers might deserve it.

Oftentimes, solutions are all about perspective.  So, instead of complaining about how much America is spending on food for the needy, maybe we should be working on ways to reduce the need for SNAP in the first place.  And the need for people to look upon their jobs in fast-food as careers that should pay a living wage.  Maybe these are symptoms of a larger economic problem.

A problem where gluttony relates to more than food... and the grease in which it's cooked.

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