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Fast Food's Cheap Labor Costs U.S. Taxpayers $7 Billion a Year

Florida Miami Homestead McDonald's fast food restaurant inside counter employee Hispanic man cashier customer
Whether you "Run on Dunkin'," (DNKN) are "Lovin' It" at McDonald's (MCD) or are simply incapable of resisting Subway's demands that you "Eat Fresh," one thing is clear: America loves the low prices and convenience of its fast food. This month, however, two recent studies have offered a fresh look at the hidden expenses behind fast food -- and, more specifically, the high cost of its cheap labor. As a shocking number of fast food workers are growing reliant on public assistance programs to help them make ends meet, it's becoming increasingly clear that low-paid fast food workers come with a very high price for consumers.

The notion that low wages come at a high social cost has gotten a lot of press this year. For the most part, however, that ink has focused on Walmart (WMT), America's largest private employer. In July, the company drew headlines when it refused to open three planned stores in Washington, D.C., after the city raised its minimum wage for big box retailers to $12.50 per hour.

It isn't hard to see how this would be a difficult transition for Walmart: its average cashier makes $8.53 per hour. And, in order to keep benefits low, the company has a history of giving its workers fewer than 30 hours per week. At the average wage, a Walmart cashier working 26 hours per week would bring home $11,532, placing him or her $42 above the poverty line for a single person household. Add in a spouse or child, and the Walmart worker would land well below the poverty line.

So it isn't hard to understand why many Walmart employees rely on welfare and other public assistance programs. A 2004 Berkeley study determined that the average Walmart worker in California received almost $2,000 a year in public aid, and a study released by congressional Democrats earlier this year estimates the cost at up to $5,815 per employee per year. That works out to between $904,542 and $1,744,590 that every single Walmart store costs taxpayers. Which means Walmart's is effectively forcing you and your fellow average Americans to subsidize its stunning profits -- whether you shop there or not.

While it's important to not let Walmart off the hook, it's clear that the discount behemoth is only part of the problem. According to a UC Berkeley Labor Center report released this week, 52 percent of all front-line fast food workers are enrolled in at least one public assistance program, and one in five households with a family member working in fast food is below the poverty line.

If one considers that many fast food workers are high school and college students living at home, the high costs of low wages become even more stark. According to the Berkeley study, more than half of all families with a family member working 40 hours per week or more at a fast food restaurant receive public assistance.

All told, the Berkeley study found that fast food restaurants cost taxpayers $7 billion a year.

Berkeley's Labor Center isn't the only group investigating the high cost of low wages. Earlier this month, the National Employment Law Project offered an even more granular analysis of the public assistance benefits paid to fast food workers. According to their study, the top 10 fast food chains are collectively responsible for $3.8 billion in public assistance costs per year, with McDonald's leading the pack at $1.2 billion. In other words, because of its low wages, McDonalds alone costs the U.S. an average of $1,695 per worker.

You want fries with that?

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Another Cry baby Bruce Watson Bullshit story. Get a real writer Dailyfinance.

October 19 2013 at 5:07 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Fast food emlloyees are being compensated at their skill level, and at a mutually agreed upon wage.

October 18 2013 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willypfistergash's comment


October 18 2013 at 8:54 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Doesn't affect any of us. Just like the $24 billion for the recent side show it is all added to our tab for the kids to pick up.

clark......the estimated $24 billion wasn't a cost. The money was never spent. Words matter.

October 18 2013 at 8:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to willypfistergash's comment

Never spent? hopefully you are kidding. The added interest costs for our debt service? The cost for back pay for federal employees? The lost revenue from reduced business at parks and near federal installations? The unemployment compensation? Wait until all the data are in. The figure in direct costs will exceed the S&P estimate. And it will all go on the tab. We refuse to do without the services we refuse to pay for is still accurate but I don't remember who said it originally.

October 18 2013 at 8:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to clark8642's comment

How is back pay any additional cost? It would have been less if they were on the job?

What I'm saying is lost revenue is not a cost, as revenue and spending are not the same thing.

October 18 2013 at 8:44 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down

We told the federal employees they could not work and then we paid them for doing no work. That is a waste of resources and is not a wash by any means. Lost revenue is an increase in our debt as long as we are running a deficit. Revenue and spending are not the same yet a change in either one affects the bottom line.

October 18 2013 at 8:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to clark8642's comment

We didin't pay them any more. Side note...amazing how many working for the fed gov are non esssential...like the EPA? 93% are non essential! In the private sector non essential workers are non workers. The back pay was a wash. We pay them for doing no work for ten holidays a year, sick days, personal days....many are duplicate programs and plenty of waste. The GAO says we could cut $125 billion a year.

But to my point, whike revenue and spending are both part of a budget, they are not the same thing. When people say a tax cuts 'cost', it is not a true statement.

October 18 2013 at 9:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down

boy...patty murray and paul ryan look pretty happy to be sharing a conference room together. This committee is a waste of time..just like all the rest of them.

October 18 2013 at 6:07 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Raise the minimum wage and the federal poverty will sortly follow.

October 18 2013 at 5:29 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willypfistergash's comment


October 18 2013 at 5:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Costs taxpayers $7 billion a year? That only affects around 53% of us doesn't it?

October 18 2013 at 5:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willypfistergash's comment

Doesn't affect any of us. Just like the $24 billion for the recent side show it is all added to our tab for the kids to pick up.

October 18 2013 at 7:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Eliminate welfare, taxpayer problem solved...

October 18 2013 at 1:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to unno2002's comment

Solved? Not hardly. A total elimination of federal welfare payments would cut $400 billion from the deficit. Any plan for the rest of the deficit? Because you are okay with having the poor contribute, I would think you would be okay with a tax increase on the wealthy, so they can do their part, for the remainder? Or maybe we should cut defense a few hundred billion? You have more work to do.

October 18 2013 at 4:22 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to clark8642's comment

Don't want to work low-paying jobs?.....then don't!.........but guaranteed, those same "former McDonald's employees" will STILL be on the public dole..........just another lame-blame article by the lib eral m ed ia............never heard of the "cost of doing business"??.................

October 18 2013 at 1:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Baggers are not the most intelligent creators on this planet
It's awesome when dunces like this badsomey comment on other's intelligence while making a screw up like this......that's funny stuff right there.

October 18 2013 at 1:12 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

.Not to denegrate any one but there are lmany in the fast food industry that are working to the top of their potential. Should the industry be forced to pay substantially more per hour they will hire a better qualified employee and the way the employer does business will be upgraded to the qualifications of the employee.The eight dollar an hour employee, should they lose their job because of the changes, will have no where to go but to the unemployment line.

October 18 2013 at 10:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply