Token political content, even on the weekend. I’m sympathetic to the idea that more Americans need to learn the basics of “financial competence” as currently imagined in our consumerist socity — just as every individual in a wandering band of hunter/gatherers needs to learn basic identification of things you can eat versus things that can eat you. But I think Paul Campos, at Salon, makes a good point:
Over the past few days, McDonald’s has gotten itself quite a bit of bad publicity, after it teamed with Visa to create a proposed sample budget for the enormously profitable fast food corporation’s hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers.
Critics have pointed out that the budget omitted such luxury items as food and heat, that it made absurdly low estimates for medical insurance — and that, most strikingly of all, it appeared to suggest that its workers should maintain two full-time jobs. (And indeed working two nearly-full time jobs would be necessary to produce the income in the sample budget, given the wages McDonald’s pays most of its employees).
These are all valid points, but an even more basic criticism of McDonald’s helpful advice to its workforce needs to be made.
The unstated assumption behind the McDonald’s budget is that the working poor must be educated about financial planning. And that assumption is in turn a belief that is deeply embedded among America’s cultural elites – including among many people who consider themselves political progressives.
That belief is: The working poor are poor because they are at bottom spendthrifts, who don’t know the value of a dollar. The working poor may have jobs, they may even work hard for their money, but they don’t know how to save for a rainy day. Instead, they squander their wages on overpriced impulse purchases, including fancy cellphones, cable TV, proletarian beer and unhealthy food that makes them fat.
Of course people who call themselves liberals feel constrained to disguise this sort of dime store Calvinism in fancy sociological jargon about the structural effects of cultures of poverty and the like. Yet every time you read a piece in a liberal publication about how we shouldn’t criticize a big corporation for trying to give its minimum wage workers some financial pointers, you can be pretty confident that the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism is lurking just beneath the surface of the progressive writer’s text…