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What Would a Livable Wage Actually Look Like?

  +Follow December 26, 2013 9:20AM
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On July 15 McDonalds Corporation (MCD) released a sample budget for employees outlining how to better manage their finances on $24,720 a year. Here it is:

The chart was widely mocked on several fronts. For one, in the “income” section, it assumed an employee would have an undefined “second job” that brought in 46.3 percent of their earnings. Second, the chart budgeted impossibly low figures for things like health insurance – at $20 a month (the average American pays $215 a month in premiums) – and food and gas, which weren’t budgeted for at all.

Assuming the employee make minimum wage, at a rate of $7.25 an hour (the wage McDonald’s starts employees at), he or she would need to work 72 hours a week to hit that benchmark.

With their “Practical Money Skills” handbook, McDonalds inadvertently showcased that they– like many of their compatriots in the service industry – do not pay a wage capable of sustaining an adult. And as over 88 percent of minimum wage earners are over 20,   

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Fair Wage Minimum Act of 2013 to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 2015. An aide of his explained it this way: “Let’s say we had indexed minimum wage to inflation in 1968. The minimum wage would then be at $10.56 today. The fact we’re at $7.25 minimum wage shows it has lost almost a third of its real value.”

The $10.10 hourly wage wouldn’t even keep pace with the minimum wage’s peak value in 1968. Even getting to that benchmark is considered untenable. But a higher minimum wage would certainly raise those numbers quite a bit.  

So what would the McDonalds budget look like on $10.10 an hour?

A Remade Budget

Let’s assume that, since we can’t be sure what inflation will be like going forward, this $10.10 wage applies to 2013.

At $10.10 an hour, and according to the chart McDonalds supplies, the employee would be making $37,814 a year, which is certainly a comfortable wage. That’s three timers over the federal poverty line for a family of one, and fifty percent over the poverty line for a family of four.

But of course, that’s assuming the worker has two jobs and is clocking 72 hours a week. Quite a bit above the 40 hour work week that formed the backbone of the labor reforms instituted following the employee abuses of the Industrial Revolution.

A Remade, Remade Budget

Let’s go ahead and assume that the worker is only going to work 40 hours a week at one job. At $10.10 an hour, that’s $21,000 a year, before taxes. That’s under the poverty line for a family of four, but still good enough to keep an earner almost two times more than a one person household.

It’s still not up to the $24,720 a year the hypothetical McDonalds employee would make. So someone making $10.10 would have to trim $3,720 a year from their budget, or $310 a month.

McDonald’s plan calls for the employee to save $100 a month. Cutting that leaves $210 a month left. Since there’s no budget for gas, let’s go ahead and remove the car payment of $150 a month and assume the employee walks everywhere. From this, it’s not too much a stretch to assume this employee could lose $60 a month off the $750 a month for discretionary spending.

Of course, this leaves a person without a car, money for transportation, and less than $25 a day in discretionary spending.

As noted earlier, the original chart lacks some expenses many people find essential. What would it look like then if the spending chart reflected someone who more accurately resembled an average American? That is, spent $25 a day on discretionary items, paid the national average in health insurance, had a car, and had to pay to both maintain it and put gas in it?

A Remade, Remade, Remade Budget

The McDonalds chart doesn’t account for food and gas in its essential expenditures. According to the USDA’s May 2013 food plan, a “thrifty” male between the ages of 19-50 can maintain a nutritious diet at $182.20 a month, if they’re in a family of four. If they live alone, it’s 20 percent more, or $218.24, with all meals prepared at home. A “liberal” food plan according to the USDA is double that, but let’s go ahead and say this person is watching their money closely. They’re on a budget, after all.  It should be noted that women spend around 20 percent less than men on food, so let’s go ahead and use a figure of $180.

For cars, let’s talk averages. On July 30 the average price of gas was $3.62 a gallon. The average American adult male driver clocks around 18,000 miles a year (female drivers, around a third of that.) And the average mid-sized American car gets 24.6 miles to the gallon. That’s 666 gallons of gas a year. Let’s split the difference on genders and say the employee drives 14,000 miles a year. That’s $2,060 a year on gas, or about $171 a month.

Then there’s maintenance. AAA reports this at 4.47 cents a mile, or $560 a year. Add in the cent a mile in tire replacement costs, and you’re at exactly $700 a year, or $58 a month in car upkeep.

Comparing what “average Americans” pay for health insurance plans can be an apples to oranges scenario, so let’s just go with Washington Post writer’s analysis of plans in his hometown of Irvine, California, where he found the average plan was around $114. Even McDonald’s own cheapest plan offered to employees costs $728.74 a year, and only covers up to $2,000 in coverage. Their “Cadillac” plan, which caps benefits at $10,000, is $1,680 a year – or around $140 a month. Of course, Obamacare will affect these rates as well,and in the case of young healthy people will probably make that rate even higher.

For a Grand Total of….

Adding together gas, food, and the company’s own premium insurance plan – which is still less than stellar –and you can tack $549 a month in expenditures, which raises McDonald’s sample budget to $2,609 a month.

So what would a person working merely 40 hours a week have to make to cover that?

$15.05 an hour. Double the current minimum wage, and fifty percent more than what the Senate's liberal wing is proposing.

Even if you took out all car related expenses, and budgeted zero for transportation, and gave them the most basic catastrophic health plan, it’s still expenditures of $2,300 a month, requiring $13.20 an hour.

Critics argue that minimum wage jobs aren't intended to be kept forever. But the numbers show minimum wage isn't even half of what a single person needs to survive.

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  +Follow December 26, 2013 9:20AM
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