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Economic value and social values are intertwined in the question of how much fast-food workers should be paid, but it’s social values that count most.

Recently fast-food workers in several cities, including Seattle, walked off the job, held rallies and marched to call attention to their desire for higher pay, more benefits and better working conditions.

Someone asked whether I thought the workers should be paid $15 an hour, rather than the $9.50 or so they average around the metro area. I said sure. But, she said, “I have a college degree and do a job that requires a lot of skill, and I don’t think it would be fair to me.” She’d still make considerably more, but the smaller gap wouldn’t feel right.

One thing people tend to pay a lot of attention to is how we compare with other people. The gap matters at a gut level to a lot of people because it is a measure of fundamental worth in a society organized primarily around money. Every society has multiple measures of relative status and worth, our primary one happens to be wealth.

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If you’ve perused the comments attached to stories about the walkouts, you may have noticed how many contributors describe fast-food workers as lazy or lacking intelligence or initiative. Some even question their moral character, on the assumption that you can measure a person’s moral character by the amount of money he makes, despite an endless list of misbehaving high earners, politicians, business executives, actors and athletes. The fundamental equation seems to be that goodness equals (monetary) success.

Fast-food workers are at the bottom of the earnings ladder, below house cleaners and child-care workers.

Certainly some people are in those jobs rather than behind a desk because of personal failures or shortcomings, but that isn’t true of all of them, and in any case it shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid doing what we can to improve life for all Americans.

Who is doing this work? Sometimes, though not as often as used to be the case, it is young people earning a little money while getting trained for the work world.

But these days you hear more about adults who have few employment options. A good chunk of the jobs created since the recession have been at the low end of pay scales. The pay looks different when a teenager is doing it than when an adult is trying to make do on it. And the two employees are judged differently. No one sneers at the teenager, but some folks do see the adult as someone who has failed and therefore belongs at the bottom.

I hope we want to be a society in which fewer people fail to get a good education, and more people develop life skills that will help them thrive. For that to be the case, a whole bunch of things have to happen. Among them, schools must do a better job of lifting children who start near the bottom. More parents need the tools necessary to help their children grow into billionaires — or maybe just well-adjusted people. Employers need to support their workers by paying fair wages and offering benefits. I know the ability to do better by workers varies, but with large corporations the structures in place are out of balance, and that affects more than workers at the bottom.

In the wake of the recession, most workers continue to lag behind, even as profits have grown for many corporations, and salaries at the top have risen. A study in the June issue of American Sociological Review finds that even before the recession, labor’s share of profits was declining, decreasing by 6 percentage points from 1979 through 2007. That represents a lost potential pay of more than $5,000 per worker on average. Workers in the middle shouldn’t wrestle workers at the bottom over crumbs.

What kind of society do we want to have? That’s the question behind pay and equity issues. Doing better as communities and businesses in those areas would not alter the fact that people will pay the price or reap the benefits of their own behavior. It would just mean that as a society we choose to make it easier for more people to succeed.

Better wages at the bottom would help all of us in the long run. Better paid employees buy more stuff, and wouldn’t that help the economy? (And if fast food cost more, maybe people would eat less of it and live longer and be healthier, which might lower health-care costs for the country overall.)

It doesn’t have to be bad for business either. A story in The Seattle Times about the walkouts here mentioned Dick’s Drive-Ins, which pays workers a little more than most fast-food places, and gives them benefits, too. The management knows these are jobs for a year or two, not a career, and encourages workers to get more education and move on.

Some companies manage to treat workers better than others, and the difference isn’t purely economics. It’s based on values, too. We need to close the values gap.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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