One of the subtle but nastier implications of the "American Dream" narrative is that poor people have squandered their chance to make it in the land of opportunity. In the United States, so goes the thinking, there's great opportunity to achieve wealth, or at least a financially secure middle class existence that can be reached by working hard. Therefore, those who do not thrive in this situation are lazy failures. As a corollary, poor people who try to better their situation by say, calling for the minimum wage to be raised, are entitled bums who didn't get the memo that they suck at life.
For a clear example of this, look no further than the response to the latest Fight For $15 protests, in which fast food and other low wage workers across the country are demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 (though in some states it's higher), which means working for 40 hours a week for an entire year at this rate would yield a pre-tax income of $15,080. At $15 an hour, it would be $31,200.
The reaction by some of the fast food workers' fellow Americans has been condescending, if not vitriolic. Writing at TheBlaze, Matt Walsh addressed the protesters directly, regaling them with his personal work history which included several jobs that paid meager wages:
"When I was 20 I moved out of the house and got my first job in radio. Starting out as a rock DJ in Delaware, I made $17,000 a year, or about $8 an hour. I lived off of that, earning a few small raises through the years — having to eat fewer meals, buy fewer things, and, God forbid, even forgo cable and Internet access in my apartment — right up to when I got married at 25."
So, Walsh found himself "having to eat fewer meals" and "buy fewer things." But rather than note the problem with a situation in which a full-time worker is so poor he has to skip meals, Walsh goes on to imply this is somehow a good thing, as if it's a sort of character-building exercise instead of an indictment of a system in which full-time employees have to occasionally forgo sustenance.
Meanwhile, over at Barstool Sports, which brands itself as a site "By the common man, for the common man," Kevin Clancy echoed this sentiment, and gave the workers a cold dose of capitalist reality:
"Protesting and saying you don't think it's fair doesn't change the way the world works. If you can only work as a fast food employee you’re probably going to need more than one job and you’re going to struggle to make ends meet. That's just the unfortunate reality."
So again, the problem isn't the system -- or at least an aspect of it -- you see. It's people who are too dumb or too lazy to better their occupational station in life and are doomed to work indefinitely in fast food, which by the way is a $190 billion a year industry in the U.S.
The really messed up part about this is the hearty approbation such articles receive in their respective comments sections, whose average participant I'd venture to guess isn't exactly a one-percenter or even a ten-percenter. Here's a sampling:
"How about instead of bitching to get overpaid for one of the easiest jobs out there, don’t get knocked up in the 10th grade and have to drop out of high school and work at McDonald’s. God damn I hate stupid people"
"Fuck the poors, all they ever do is whine and blame their problems on others"
"Maybe if these idiots paid attention/ went to school they’d understand basic concepts such as supply and demand or inflation. Raising the minimum wage to $15 isn’t going to help anyone. Learn a fucking skill other than rolling blunts and drinking 40s."
"Fuck these people…the majority of people who work at McDonald’s as a “real job” are fuckin immigrants and already get extra benefits from the government…not to mention McDonald’s offers these fuckin clowns benefits, go work in a fuckin pizza place 70 hours a week with no benefits and see what that’s like"
"15 dollars an hour would be 31,000 dollars a year. That’s 5,000 more than a private in the army. Fuck these motherfuckers"
Actually, U.S. Army Private basic pay is actually worse than $26,000 a year (it's $17,520). Regardless, again note the implication that these wages are or should be set in stone. If a soldier in the U.S. Army is paid shit, then so should unskilled workers in the private sector. It doesn't occur to the commenter and millions of Americans like him, that maybe both should have their wages raised because neither is getting a living wage despite working full-time.
While there's certainly a conversation to be had about the benefits and pitfalls of raising wages so dramatically, much of the national dialogue about the protests has little to do with these implications, but a hell of a lot to do with the kind of self-righteous anger seen above. For decades, we've been told that there's an entire subclass of Americans who are dragging the country down via the "entitlements" system -- a mantra infamously encapsulated in Mitt Romney's 47% comment. That narrative has been eagerly accepted by the very people who, in many cases, would stand to benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.
Most fast food workers probably don't expect to get their pay raised to $15 an hour, which is likely intended merely as a starting point in a broader national conversation about fair pay. And whether you think low-skilled workers deserve $15 an hour or not, there's nothing wrong with admitting that in the richest country in the world, having a full-time job should mean having more financial security than it provides right now, no matter what that job is.