The kale-and-quinoa set love to vilify McDonald’s as a bane of the poor. McFood causes obesity and chronic disease. McBosses pay low wages, and, when workers “fight for fifteen,” they villainously respond by replacing them with computerized kiosks for taking customer orders.
There is merit to the health critique, but not so for the economic one. But there is one way in which McDonald’s provides an inestimable service to the poor. It has gone almost entirely unremarked, until a reporter recently interviewed regulars at a McDonald’s in the Bronx. The Guardian’s Chris Arnade points out what has been staring us all in the face: that “in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods” “McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers…” In his article, “McDonald’s: you can sneer, but it’s the glue that holds communities together” Arnade writes (emphasis mine):
“When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.
Walk into any McDonald’s in the morning and you will find a group of mostly retired people clustering in a corner, drinking coffee, eating and talking. They are drawn to the McDonald’s because it has inexpensive good coffee, clean bathrooms, space to sprawl. Unlike community centers, it is also free of bureaucracy.”
“It isn’t just groups who use McDonald’s. For many of the poorest, for the homeless, and for people caught in an addiction, McDonald’s are an integral part of their lives. They have cheap and filling food, they have free Wi-Fi, outlets to charge phones, and clean bathrooms. McDonald’s is also generally gracious about letting people sit quietly for long periods — longer than other fast-food places.”
The poor, says Arnade:
“…prefer McDonald’s to shelters and to non-profits, because McDonald’s are safer, provide more freedom, and most importantly, the chance to be social, restoring a small amount of normalcy.”
The article is deeply touching to get a peek into the lives and challenges of the complex human beings who find community at McDonald’s. For example, Arnade introduces us to 93-year-old Willard Jones, who says:
“I love McDonald’s. People are so nice. My friends come here. I see everybody. Coffee is good, and cheap.” He was born and raised here. “I had it real rough growing up, because times were real rough. Lived on a plantation, modern day slavery. When I was a kid, we used to get a special treat a few times a year, and go eat in town. That place was dirty and cost us a lot. Not like McDonald’s. It is clean here.”
Despite Arnade’s title, the ideological Left will insist on sneering anyway, and pooh-pooh the touching stories he uncovered. They are profoundly uncomfortable with this way of alleviating the isolation often entailed in poverty. According to them, the poor should not find comfort and community through a commercial relationship: exchanging a few bucks for coffee and a clean and inviting meeting space. Such service should be a gracious gift to the poor from their altruistic betters (often funded by the compelled “charity” of taxpayers). And of course, such beneficence should have strings attached: conditions to regulate the behavior of the poor “for their own good.”
In practice, such paternalism corrodes character, instead of fostering it. It saps self-reliance and cultivates a pernicious dependence. The paternalists are blind to this effect. They are too busy enjoying the feeling of self-righteousness to notice. They are more “feel-gooders” than “do-gooders.”
Thankfully, the poor still have some freedom to refuse such “gifts” and to choose instead self-respecting, business-like relations with for-profit operations like McDonald’s: outfits that treat them like adult customers, and not dependent clients.
Originally published at fee.org on June 10, 2016.