While wishing that they “have a nice pay!”, I don’t have to take the employees’ or management’s side on the issue of wage-hike demand’s by McDonald’s, Wendy’s or other fast-food industry workers to see the implications for the health of Americans.

There are several, including more subtle ones, beyond the obvious implications for trying to sustain any lifestyle, especially a healthy one, on barely more than $1,000 per month.

[That can be a truly daunting challenge, based on a national average of $9 per hour for a 30-hour week, i.e., $1,080 gross per month, before tax and any other deductions, which is likely to become the norm for these employees, as employers try to fly below the mandated Obamacare thresholds for compulsory coverage by reducing weekly hours to 29.5.]

The Wage-Public Health Nexus

However, implicit in the dynamics of the recent widespread McDonald’s walkout is a startling socioeconomic model that abstractly captures an unexpected interplay between wages and public health.

Specifically, what is implied by the dynamic is that wage demands on an employer may trigger a socially beneficial plunge in demand for that enterprise’s products and services, with positive consequences for the employees and society—although perhaps not for the employer—irrespective of whether those wage demands are met or not!

Here’s how it can happen: First, the employees at some huge fast-food corporation or one of its supplier companies demand a wage increase. If that demand is met, obviously several things can happen as consequences. If the wage hikes are passed on to customers as price hikes, demand for the products or services are likely to drop, assuming some “elasticity of demand”.

If through a substitution effect, these products and services are replaced with very healthful, yet equally inexpensive alternatives, e.g., a baked sweet potato, utterly delicious pure cocoa powder-frozen banana desert, tangy soda water with a squeeze of lemon or even a can of—ugh!—sardines, instead of a deep fried, sugar-laced dessert; high-cholesterol, carcinogenic hot dog, bacon or sausage; over-the-top omega 6-drenched fried chicken; or aspartame/fructose/sodium-packed snack, the U.S. epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, attention-deficit disorders,  rampant depression, acne and high-blood pressure may be stemmed, if not reversed.

In a huge and positive irony, among the potential beneficiaries of the price hikes are the employees themselves, if they choose to join those who switch to more healthful alternatives. In demanding and getting a wage hike, they will unwittingly and potentially be making a significant contribution to public health, including their own.

However, the outcome may be even more ironic, but less positive: In virtue of getting higher wages and because they often eat where they work, the striking employees may end up consuming more, not less, fast food and, from the perspective of health-food advocates, risk become martyrs of the crusade for healthier eating and living.

But, what happens if, as critics of minimum-wage legislation warn, instead of causing a price increase, the wage hikes result in staff cuts designed to hold costs down, thereby exacerbating the financial plight of those employees eventually cut?

In that case, one possible outcome is that relative to income—now at least temporarily zero for those workers—fast foods become even more like luxury foods, thereby giving the former employees an even greater incentive to switch to cheaper, more nourishing home-prepared meals.

As a consequence similar to that of the feared Obamacare-induced work-time cuts,  a similar positive scenario of dietary switching may ensue if staff hours are cut in response to wage increases, leaving fewer staff on duty at times and less money in the pockets of time-cut employees to spend on not-always-economical fast-food meals.

On the other hand, if the employee wage demands are not met, here too, even fast food may become too expensive for them, given their tight-as-a-noose budgets and meager incomes.

After all, fast food counts as “dining out”—a luxury in hard times and on minimum wage—and will remain more expensive than the cheapest more nourishing meals that can be made at home.

For example, compare a typical fast-food meal that costs about $3.95—before applicable taxes—with this, one of my favorites:

  • sardines, 1 can: high in omega 3, calcium, B-complex vitamins—including the all-important B12, complete protein. Cost: about $1 or less. [If you hate sardines, try a can of tuna or inexpensive non-farmed salmon, which will cost only a bit more, if you shop around.]
  • sweet potato [the bright orange variety]: loaded with vitamin A, essential potassium, anti-inflammatory agents, and with a low glycemic index. Cost: about 60 cents per 100 grams.
  • frozen green peas, 1 cup: high-fiber, high vitamin-K, low pesticide residues, low sugar. Cost: about 50 cents.
  • 2 semi-frozen bananas and 1 teaspoon of natural, beneficial cocoa powder, blended together: very high in potassium, anti-oxidants, lower calories than conventional deserts, low-fat. Total cost: about 25 cents. Tastes like premium gelato! [For 25 good reasons to eat bananas, see this.]
  • whole lemon juice and cheaper mineral or soda water: vitamin-C, important health-protecting alkalinizing effect, no added sugar, no color, no corn syrup, no aspartame, no preservatives like sodium benzoate, no other additives. Compare the near-zero sugar load of that with the 41 teaspoons [!] of sugar in a large “Rolo-Blizzard” shake. Cost: about 40 cents per liter and half-lemon for the numerous health benefits of lemon water. It’s my main beverage.

TOTAL COST: $2.75 per meal [plus applicable taxes, if any]. Try to find a nutritionally equivalent, superior, additive-free, unprocessed, complete and/or balanced fast-food meal for that price.

[For more cost information, including data, see this.]

 Globalizing the Wage-Public Health Model

This wage-health dynamic is not limited to the American or any other fast-food industry. In any industry providing products or services with health implications, any demand for higher wages can trigger a comparable set of public health consequences.

For example, consider workers at a depleted-uranium weapons plant and follow the same logical thread through that scenario—including the possible public health benefits to employees as well as to the general global public of losing a job there because of wage hikes or of unacceptable higher costs per shell.

That would be a case of one kind of strike preventing another more devastating one, rather than a case of a fast-food strike preventing a devastating stroke.


Note: All of the food suggestions presented above are just that—suggestions. Thoroughly investigate any food before incorporating it into your diet, especially if you have allergies, pre-existing medical conditions or other health or dietary issues.

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