The hyperbole surrounding the Affordable Care Act has conveniently managed to obfuscate critical issues that are hiding in plain sight.

The politics of self, which lauds unfettered markets and believes Gordon Gekko is right that "greed is good," is the dominant paradigm in American political discourse.

It is the intrusive siren emanating from a more vocal strain of libertarian ideology. It pretends to be standing on the front lines, guarding against policies that appear to support the "other" and it should be questioned at all cost, even if it means arguing against one's self-interest.

It is insidious because the politics of self blinds us to everything that does not align with our preconceived notions, including the humanity of the "other."

While the politics of self is quick to point out that the country cannot afford the Affordable Care Act, perhaps an equally valid question is whether we can afford the current practices?

The fast-food industry costs American taxpayers nearly $7 billion annually because its jobs pay so little that 52 percent of fast-food workers are forced to enroll their families in public assistance programs, according to a report released last week by researchers at the UC Berkeley.

"The taxpayer costs we discovered were staggering," said Ken Jacobs, chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. "People who work in fast-food jobs are paid so little that having to rely on public assistance is the rule, rather than the exception, even for those working 40 hours or more a week."


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Service Employees International Union also alleged this week that McResources, the resource arm of McDonald's, which assists with financial housing, child care and other services for its employees, actually directs those who call to apply for public assistance.

Fast food is a $200 billion-a-year industry. The median wage for core front-line workers at fast-food restaurants nationally is $8.69 an hour. Only 13 percent of the jobs provide health benefits.

This is stark reminder how productivity in America has greatly outpaced wages in the last 43 years. According to economist Dean Baker, after more than a decade of losing ground to inflation, an increase to the minimum wage is long overdue.

Baker argues that productivity has doubled since 1969, but the minimum wage no longer keeps pace. Baker concludes that had the minimum wage kept pace with productivity, it would currently stand at $16.50.

The researchers also found that the fast-food industry's low wages and meager benefits, often accompanied by part-time hours, combine to create substantial public-assistance needs, including:

  • Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, $3.9 billion per year.

  • Earned Income Tax Credit payments, $1.95 billion per year.

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, $1.04 billion per year.

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, $82 million per year.

    The states where the fast-food industry's low wages cost U.S. taxpayers the most include California at $717 million, New York at $708 million, Texas at $556 million, Illinois at $368 million and Florida at $348 million.

    It this practice acceptable? I understand that working in the fast-food industry should not allow one to obtain an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, but nor should it lead to a methodology by which fast-food industries evade cost by giving it to the public to bear.

    The politics of self demands that one pray for the Affordable Care Act's failure. So what if fast-food industries buffer their bottom line on the backs of hardworking Americans? Though no laws have been broken, is this moral?

    I'm not suggesting that the Affordable Care Act is the answer -- that remains to be seen. But the current practice by the fast-food industry is wrong and should not be conflated with capitalism at its finest, despite the claims offered by the politics of self.

    Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.