McDonald’s recently partnered with Visa to put out what they call the Practical Money Skills Budget Journal (pdf), a “helpful” tool for McDonald’s employees to keep track of their earnings and expenses. There have been a flurry of responses to the “McBudget” including realistic comparisons, snarky analysis, and talk of unicorns as a means for transportation. Others have defended the budget, claiming that it gives low-wage workers the necessary tools for financial planning.
Coincidentally enough, we also recently released an online tool related to family budgets—along with Elise Gould and Nicholas Finio, we developed EPI’s Family Budget Calculator, a measure of just how much income it takes for families to buy the necessities for an adequate but modest lifestyle. Our basic budgets include the cost of rent, food, health care, child care, transportation, other necessary expenses and taxes in each of 615 communities across the country. While families at these budget levels may be able to pay their bills and put food on the table, our family budgets imply a pretty austere lifestyle. There is no savings, no vacations, no cable or internet service, and, certainly, no restaurant visits.
The EPI family budgets look at six different family types, ranging from a one-parent, one-child households to a two-parent, three-child households. When you combine what we found in our rigorous family budgets with the McDonald’s budget, some startling results stand out. Meeting the goals in the McDonald’s sample budget requires a monthly net income of $2,060, which is $816 less than what a one-parent, one-child household needs in rural Mississippi, where the post-tax cost of living is lowest. And it is $1,397 less than the median one-parent, one-child family budget. One could argue that our family budgets (which presume the presence of kids) are not particularly relevant to McDonald’s employees, on the grounds that minimum wage workers tend to be teenagers themselves. But that would be wrong. We have shown before that the bulk of the minimum wage workforce are adult employees working at least 20 hours per week, not teenagers or part-timers looking to make a little extra spending money.
Ironically, by suggesting that someone needs a monthly net income of $2,060 to meet their sample budget, the McBudget implies that one 40-hour week minimum-wage job is severely inadequate, and that even two full-time, full-year minimum wage workers would fall short of even this unrealistically low standard. This may be why the McDonald’s budget suggests a second job. A full-time, full-year worker would need to earn about $15.00 an hour (before taxes) to reach this budget level, or would have to work more than 40 hours each week. The McDonald’s sample budget is also underestimating (often radically) many basic necessities, such as rent and health insurance ($20 per month!), and missing others, like child care, that are essential for sustaining employment. (Since its original release, they have increased the heating allowance from $0.00 to $50.00 per month.)
What these two budgets make clear is that the struggles of tens of millions of American families to make ends meet is not a failure of financial planning, it’s a failure of financial resources. Even if McDonald’s employees meticulously track all of their expenses, they will still fall short of what is necessary to make ends meet, let alone actually be able to save $100 every month, as the McDonald’s budget suggests. It’s tempting to believe that all America’s low- and moderate-wage workers need to get by is better life skills, when in fact what they really need is a raise.