The explosion in people on government assistance in recent years is often attributed to the unemployment rate, which has remained at high levels for nearly five years now. But many of those on the government dole are part of the so-called "working poor." A new study from the University of California-Berkley and the University of Illinois finds that 59% of fast food workers in Texas are on some form of public assistance. Nationwide, 52% of fast food workers use at least one form of public aid like food stamps or Medicaid.
Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene is not surprised by these numbers. "The working poor are growing very quickly," he tells KTRH. "Low-wage employment has really not had increases in years now, and the proportion of the population that relies on those wages has been growing very significantly." Greene has seen this phenomenon directly with the number of people coming to his organization for help. "We actually set up a pantry here at the food bank with a requirement that you must show proof of employment--it's specifically for the working poor--and that thing is busy every night now," he says. The study on fast food workers also mirrors other workplace trends. "According to the Census Bureau, two-thirds of the food-insecure population includes an adult with a full-time job," says Greene.
The report suggests that fast food wages are too low, a point driven home by last summer's fast food strikes around the country that demanded a raise in the minimum wage. But critics point out that fast food jobs were not meant to support a family, and that raising wages would only lead to fewer jobs, resulting in even worse circumstances for these workers. They argue that better training for specialized skills and an overall better economy with more higher-paying jobs are the answers to getting people off of public assistance. Whatever the solution, Greene says the "working poor" are a real problem. "These are people who are working, in most cases working a full-time job, it's just that too many of the jobs people can get without the right skill set and education are just not enough to make ends meet."