Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry


Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs are from working families. But many of them work in jobs that pay wages so low that their paychecks do not generate enough income to provide for life’s basic necessities. Low wages paid by employers in the fast-food industry create especially acute problems for the families of workers in this industry. Median pay for core front-line fast-food jobs is $8.69 an hour, with many jobs paying at or near the minimum wage. Benefits are also scarce for front-line fast-food workers; an estimated 87 percent do not receive health benefits through their employer. The combination of low wages and benefits, often coupled with part-time employment, means that many of the families of fast-food workers must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs to make ends meet.

This report estimates the public cost of low-wage jobs in the fast-food industry. Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the other public benefits programs discussed in this report provide a vital support system for millions of Americans working in the United States’ service industries, including fast food. We analyze public program utilization by working families and estimate total average annual public benefit expenditures on the families of front-line fast-food workers for the years 2007–2011.1 For this analysis we focus on jobs held by core, front-line fast-food workers, defined as nonmanagerial workers who work at least 11 hours per week for 27 or more weeks per year.