Food Stamps for West Virginia’s Minimum Wage Fast Food Workers?

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – They work hard to get you a hot cup of coffee in the morning or a quick dinner at night, but many minimum wage fast-food workers depend on public assistance to feed their own families.

According to research from the University of California at Berkeley, more than half of the country’s fast food workers are now in public assistance programs.

Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, says his organization’s research shows that many of these workers are actually trying to support families on minimum wage, no-benefit jobs.

“But if you’re working on the minimum wage right now, your wage is set below the poverty level,” he adds. “Two-person poverty threshold is above what a full-time working 40 hour a week 52 weeks a year worker can earn at the minimum wage.”

According to the Berkeley study, public assistance for fast food employees costs U.S. taxpayers $7 billion a year.

UC Berkeley economist Sylvia Allegretto says the research uncovers broader problems in the U.S. economy.

She says corporate profits as a share of national income are at record highs, while the share going to workers is at a 55-year low – and falling.

“Low-wage workers really took it on the chin during the Great Recession,” she says. “Hours cut, pay that was frozen or cut. And now that the economy is growing again and corporate profits are soaring, the workers are not sharing in those benefits.”

According to O’Leary, nearly 200,000 West Virginians would get a raise if the minimum wage increased to $10.10 an hour – enough to get many off public assistance.

Critics charge that would increase unemployment by forcing fast food restaurants to lay off workers or cut hours.

O’Leary counters that it actually it wouldn’t increase costs that much, even at fast food places.

“That’s where most of the minimum-wage jobs are, are in the service sector and the retail industry and in the food service sector,” he explains. “But while raising the minimum does increase business costs, it’s not really a huge cost.”

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