Audio: McDonald's Tells Its Employees to Sign Up for Food Stamps

For the past week, labor groups have been publicizing a new study that finds the federal government spends roughly $7 billion a year on benefits like food stamps and Medicaid for fast-food workers. Taxpayers, they say, are subsidizing the industry's profits.

In other words, Burger King is a Welfare Queen.

Now, activists have followed up with a nifty little PR stunt in the form of the video above. It's an edited recording* of a staffer on the McDonald's employee helpline explaining to a restaurant crew worker how they can sign up for food stamps, among other government benefits.  

"McDonald's doesn't want to pay its workers more," the clip concludes. "Instead, it wants you to pay its workers more." 

Just as there's nothing technically wrong with McDonald's telling workers they'll probably need a second job, there's also nothing technically wrong with fast-food companies explaining how to get federal benefits. And yet, here we have a terrifically profitable international corporation refusing to raise wages while acknowledging that it pays too little for its workers to comfortably survive.

And videos like this one aren't going to change its attitude. There too many incentives for fast food chains, and especially individual franchise owners, not to up what they pay. McDonald's, Dominos, Taco Bell and their ilk compete on rock bottom prices. It's a hot, greasy war fought with $5.99 two-topping pizzas, $1 beefy burritos and $5, 20-piece McNuggets. The battle to keep meals cheap is so fierce that McDonald's was willing to spend years fighting its own franchisees over its dollar menu—a one-buck double cheeseburger was worth a measly 6 cents profit at some stores—until finally giving some ground this week. And while McDonald's has proven it's capable of making a profit abroad while paying workers $15 an hour or more, in the end, the recipe for success usually includes higher prices.  Fast food restaurants in the U.S. aren't going to risk emulating it and losing customers to the competition.

What that means is this: If you think low-wage workers deserve a raise, there are three realistic routes. First, you can support changes to labor laws that might make it easier to organize sprawling, franchised chains like McDonald's. Second, you can double down on the federal government's role in redistributing wealth, and perhaps push for a more generous version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts the after-tax earnings of low-wage workers and has proven to be a great tool for fighting poverty. Which is to say,  you can accept that the fast food industry will pretty directly benefit from U.S. welfare policy, and hopefully employ more workers as a result. Or finally, you can support a higher minimum wage and possibly risk some number of job losses.  

*Upon request, a labor group spokeswoman provided me with an unedited copy of the recording, which she asked me not to post because it included some of the caller's personal information. The edited version struck me as a fair but much shortened representation of conversation. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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