St. Louis is one of the cheapest cities in America. In May 2013, it became the third U.S. city to launch a fast food strike, following New York in November 2012 and Chicago in April 2013. When McDonald’s released a model budget for fast food workers, it was derided as “ridiculous” and “hilariously obtuse” — except in St. Louis.
“When I lived in St. Louis, my roommate and I each paid $425 per month for our comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods,” wrote the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee, adding that living off a fast food salary was “completely plausible in typical U.S. cities.”
St. Louis is indeed a typical U.S. city. It is the sort of typical U.S. city so rarely included in national media coverage that the idea that it is easy to be poor here — that it is easy to be poor — is accepted without question. If you have social capital, education, and a job that pays you enough to live above the poverty line, St. Louis is a bargain. But if you grew up in poverty in St. Louis, if you bear the brunt of St. Louis’s burdens, then you cannot be a player in a poor man’s town. You are its discarded casualty.
It was not easy to get an interview with Patrick, or any of the St. Louis fast food workers with whom I spoke.
Fast-food workers begin each week with uncertainty. They do not know how many hours they will work or when those hours will be. They do not know whether they will come up with the cash — and it is always cash — to make it to the job. They do not know if the lights will still be on when they get home. They do not know where, in a few months, home will be. They hunt for cheaper or easier or safer, knowing that to combine them is impossible.
When I ask workers if I can call with follow-up questions, they tell me they no longer have a phone or worry about wasting prepaid minutes. Meetings are canceled because the car runs out of as, because someone’s child needs to be watched, because an unexpected opportunity arises — extra hours on the job, or a chance to do some paid yard work for a neighbor.
The paradox of poverty is that tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes.
Fast-food workers often refer to “the struggle” — not in a dramatic way, but as a synonym for life. The struggle is what people did not know about, they tell me. The struggle is what people cannot see, even though the struggle is happening right in front of them.
“If I had more money, there wouldn’t be the struggle,” Jenina, a 20-year-old McDonald’s worker, explains. “I would set a budget and it would be a good budget. I wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent or utilities. I’d still help my momma. I’d be able to get a bus pass. I’d go back to school. I’d do a lot.”
Jenina dropped out of nursing school after her mother lost her job, because she needed the tuition money to pay bills. Her income from McDonald’s, where she started working as a high school senior, helps support her mother and younger sister. Patrick’s Chipotle income helps support his mother, a makeup artist who has struggled to find steady work since the recession. Krystal’s Taco Bell income helps support her son; her sister, who lives with her and works at Jack in the Box; and now, her newborn daughter.
Every worker I interview is supporting someone: an unemployed parent, a child, a sibling, a friend. Most of their friends and family members work in fast food or other service industries. Everyone is in their twenties or older. All but one is African-American.
Minimum wage work in the United States is no longer a job. It is a social position, passed on from generation to generation. The idea that their own relatives, their own children, would end up in the same fast food jobs they loathed was viewed as so inevitable that workers never remarked upon it directly. But it emerged over and over in casual conversation.
It is February and Krystal is telling me she and her six-year-old son may be heading to Kansas City with her boyfriend. He heard there were better jobs out west. He might be able to get carpentry work, or drive a truck. Krystal is not sure what she will do. She dreams of going to nursing school, but suspects she will “transfer” to another Taco Bell to make ends meet. Her baby is due in a few days. I ask how she sees her family’s future.
“I see…” she says, and pauses.
“My son, for whatever reason, he wants to work at Taco Bell when he gets older. And I just hope that when it does come time for him and the other younger kids to get a job working in fast food that they can have peace of mind. I hope they can say, ‘Hey, I can work here, I can make enough, pay what I need to pay, take care of my family.’ I hope he doesn’t have to go to work and be judged by anybody.”
Poverty is a punishment for the crime of living. In St. Louis, it is a shared sentence.
St. Louis is an anomaly for large American cities in that the actual city has only about 300,000 residents. Most of the metropolitan area’s nearly three million people live in the surrounding St. Louis County. The county consists of dozens of suburbs ranging from poor to opulent, and its regions are designated by their relation to the city — for example, North County.
To follow a fast food worker’s commute is to trace St. Louis’s long history of racial segregation, economic decline, and fear. Most workers with whom I spoke grew up and still live in North County towns whose populations changed dramatically over the past three decades: a phenomenon one observer bluntly described as “ghetto spillover”. Once the suburbs of white flight, these towns are now the destinations of black flight, as struggling African-American families seek a safe and good life outside the crumbling terrain of the inner city.
St. Louis residents are defensive about the city’s reputation as one of the most dangerous in the U.S., and for good reason. St. Louis is civic-minded and family-friendly, and violent crime is rare outside certain areas — where it is rampant.
The truism that St. Louis is “not dangerous” belies a darker truth: the people for whom it is dangerous are not supposed to matter.
Drive through northern St. Louis and here are some of the things you find: A 12-bedroom, 8-bathroom 19th century mansion with a carriage house on the market for $185,000, the price falling every year. A 57-acre forest in the center of the city where the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, demolished in 1972 after decades of degradation, once stood. Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri: population 6,000 in 1960, population 299 in 2010. Houses with no doors or windows and the pipes torn out of the walls. Houses that are frames because someone stole and sold the bricks. Houses with people still living in them, wondering what will happen next. The average life expectancy in North St. Louis is lower than that of Iraq. Almost everyone in North St. Louis is black.
There are few functional businesses in North St. Louis. Drive out of the city limits to the fringes of North County, where many of the fast food workers live, and things start to look up. Next to the decaying buildings are signs of life: a payday loan store, a title loan store, a dollar store, a pawn shop. The economy is poor because the people are poor: possessions, here, are not what you own but what you trade to survive.
St. Louis is a typical U.S. city in that it is many cities in one. Fast food workers take the bus to the nicer areas, where the businesses are, where the people with money are, away from where they live. They look out the window and watch opportunity pass them by.
*This article is comprised of select excerpts from “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back. Across the U.S., fast food workers are asking: “What am I worth?” by Sarah Kendzior on Medium. It is reposted here with the author’s permission. Please click on the link to the full story and read it in its entirety. Alex Ihnen, Editor – nextSTL