By Maya Durvasula.
Even a simple survey of the fast food industry would reveal enough injustices to keep legions of activists and advocates busy for years: large-scale cultural degradation, grotesque animal cruelty, an overwhelming contribution to epidemic obesity, and large-scale worker exploitation. None of these problems are particularly well-kept secrets; from the McDonald’s chicken nuggets video that made the rounds several years back to long-form analyses of what, precisely, a tipped minimum wage of only $2.13 means for workers across the country, it is difficult to plead ignorance about the nature of the industry. It’s a bit more challenging to fault consumers for succumbing to what is, in essence, the scientifically determined perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat, which is far more easily accessed than its healthy counterparts, than it is to wonder where the government is in all of this. How can factory farming’s biggest champion be allowed to continue peddling its product, stomping on the backs of nutritionists and workers alike in the process, without meaningful regulation?
The answer is unsurprisingly the same abbreviation that we arrive at when we consider another issue that encountered an irrationally small amount of progress: The NRA.
This NRA, of course, is the National Restaurant Association, which uses successful tactics and operates with a budget large enough to earn itself the moniker of the “other NRA” (in reference to the National Rifle Association).
It isn’t surprising that, when it comes to the business of food, there is a formidable lobby in Washington that represents 500,000 restaurants in the $600 billion restaurant industry. After all, nearly every industry spends money on partisan politics and employs enough lobbyists to quash potentially problematic bills. While working in New Mexico, I was told again and again of the years during which an apparently formidable fireworks lobby made sure that every effort to regulate (and potentially ban) the sale of fireworks during peak season for forest fires, in a state known for its tendency to host massive, roaring blazes during the month of July, died in committee.
While the topics of access to healthy and unhealthy food, food deserts, and relative price of nutritious food are a policy-making and political jungle well-worth exploring, let us consider for the moment just the issues of lobbying-power and worker’s rights. (In the meantime, Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy Kelly Brownell has published extensively on the relationships between environment, health, food, and obesity.)
Since the 1990s, due in large part to considerable NRA lobbying, Congress set the minimum wage for tipped workers at just $2.13 per hour. While many states have raised this over the past two decades, the wages taken home by tipped workers often fail to equal those earned by their counterparts who receive standard minimum wage and do not come close to approaching a true living wage. New York, as of February, has deviated from this pattern by raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, the “the state’s lowest paid workers” to $7.50 per hour.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center United estimates that the NRA has spent nearly $13 million on federal campaigns since 1989, with organizations represented by the NRA spending more than $50 million more since that time. In particular, this report notes that the NRA employed almost twice as many “revolving door lobbyists” – former chiefs of staff and legislative directors to members of Congress who take positions on the lobbying group’s payroll – as the National Rifle Organization in 2013.
With millions of dollars flowing into campaign coffers, the NRA has had no shortage of results. It has opposed any changes to the federal tipped worker minimum wage, “played an active role” in blocking state-by-state wage laws, crushed efforts to require paid sick leave for employees, and shepherded legislation to change the threshold for employer-provided healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act, effectively excluding employees who work under 30 hours per week. Additionally, the NRA has opposed important public health measures, like nutritional menu labeling, limitations on junk food marketing to children, and regulation of trans-fat, sugar, and salt in processed food.
It is easy enough to write off the actions of the NRA as examples of the proper functioning of our economic system; in order to protect their interests, restaurants use their hard-earned profits to pay representatives who will ensure that their interests are appropriately represented in D.C. and in state capitols across the country. If this were true, then we would have to weigh more carefully our interests in protecting our systems of governance and business against consumer safety and public health concerns. However, as long as taxpayers are subsidizing the restaurant industry, we ought to consider the actions of its constituent businesses subject to scrutiny and regulation.
The Institute for Policy Studies refers to the issue of taxpayer subsidization of this industry as “Taxpayers’ Double Burden.” According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a loophole in tax law “allows corporations to deduct an unlimited amount of the cost of performance pay options” from income tax filings, meaning that taxpayers have subsidized more than $230 million in CEO compensation for the top 20 NRA restaurant chains. Public policy and advocacy group Demos writes that, in 2012, “the compensation of fast food CEOs was more than 1,200 times the earnings of the average fast food worker.” The National Employment Law Project estimates that public assistance given to fast-food workers, who are twice as likely to be on public assistance compared to the rest of the population, costs at least $3.8 billion per year. The report suggests that taxpayers fund McDonald’s employees with upwards of $1.2 billion annually in public assistance.
This taxpayer assistance to NRA members comes even as the industry reports record-breaking growth. A NRA report noted that the industry was expected to increase sales to $683 billion in the 2014 fiscal year, with a $24 billion increase in profits. As long as NRA members continue to benefit from taxpayer assistance, taxpayers ought to demand that that money be put to a much better use.