At 162 million (or so), the U.S. labor force is large and diverse. So, when we say that wages are 2.9% higher than last August, it sounds simple. But it really is not.
Where you live can determine what you earn.
It’s tough to compare wages around the United States. Yes, lots of people could be called auto workers or potato and computer chip makers. However, depending on the region, we would find that similar sounding jobs can be rather different.
But not for McDonald’s.
Looking at McDonald’s “basic crew” employees, we can compare “apples to apples.” At a Hamburger University campus, you can get a similar education. And, at your local McDonald’s, no matter where, you follow the same operations manual. Or as Princeton professor Orley Ashenfelter and his co-author Štěpán Jurajda explained, you have “standardized capital.”
Because those McDonald’s jobs are so similar, we can get a more accurate picture of wage differences. In 2016, 29 states and 41 cities deviated from the federal hourly minimum of $7.25. Ohio had a minimum wage of $8.10 then (now it’s $8.15) while Pennsylvania was at the federal minimum (and still is) for its privately employed work force. The impact on the McWage was evident. In Ohio, it was $8.35 and Pennsylvania, $7.81.
Similarly, across the nation, people’s McWage rates differ for almost identical work. In the following map, the darkest blue areas take us between $8.75 and 13.00 an hour while the next lighter blue is $8.05-$8.75. At the bottom, in very light blue and almost white, we go from an hourly wage of $8.05-$7.50 to $7.50-$7.25:
Correspondingly, McDonald’s workers’ purchasing power is not the same. With one hour of wages, an Ohio employee can buy 2.05 Big Macs while a Pennsylvania employee could get 1.81. But for the highest purchasing power, we have to go to Nebraska, Minnesota, and North Dakota where one hour of work gets them 2.3 Big Macs. At the other end are Maine and Louisiana where workers can buy approximately 1.7.
As for Big Mac prices, there is a whopper of a difference. Big Macs varied in 2016 from a (median) high of $8.36 down to $2.76.
Our Bottom Line: The Zigzags in the British Coastline
The authors of the Princeton paper point out that much of our labor force information is from surveys that are general. While they let us compare workers with a similar education and occupation, they don’t convey the massive differences among these workers.
Instead, because the Princeton paper looks more closely at the McWage worker, it can show us (for example) the “negative employment impact of Chinese imports.” Their point is that a close look not only unveils a correlation but also the potential for greater insight. If we know precisely who is affected by changes in trade, we can design programs that target them.
So, while our focus has been McDonald’s basic crew employees, we are really talking about an immensely varied labor force. When the Labor Department tells us that wages have increased by 2.9% ($.77) during the past year, they are referring to a current national hourly average of $27.16. But you can see that the average, while important, can obscure a much more complex situation.
In the same way, Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, told us that the closer you look at Great Britain’s coastline the more you see. From a distance, it is a curved line. However, looking closely, we see countless indents and zigzags.
So too with the U.S. labor force.
My sources and more: While reading the McWage paper was a slog, its ideas were fascinating. Similarly, for a firsthand look at the statistics, the August employment report had the wage data and a link to wages in different industries. The one article I recommend is from CNBC about why fast food workers in North Dakota “bring home the Bakken.” It conveys ideally why McDonald’s pays a high wage rate there.
Please note that this post was slightly edited after publication to improve clarity.