Two weeks ago, Mendy Hughes used $4 from her thinning bank account to pick up a family dinner from McDonald’s on her day off as a cashier at Walmart, the country’s largest grocery store chain. After 12 years with the company, Hughes makes $12.85 an hour as a full-time employee, which leaves about $200 every two weeks after monthly rent and utilities to cover essentials and food for herself and her three kids.

“Food — it’s stressful,” said Hughes, 47, of Malvern, Arkansas. “I think all day: ‘What am I going to buy when I get off [work] that I can afford? What am I going to get?’ It’s just hard.”

As prices have skyrocketed because of pandemic-driven price inflation, Hughes has found that her grocery budget has essentially dropped to zero, leaving fast food as the only affordable option to survive. The cost per pound of ground beef, for example, rose by about 19 percent nationwide from January to October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS. But the last time Hughes got a raise was last year, when Walmart bumped her hourly pay by $1, which amounts to about an 8 percent increase. Walmart’s new wage increases, introduced in September, put her at just 85 cents above the company’s standard starting salary.

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