CHICAGO—For the past four years, the first of the month meant one thing to Chicago single mother LaTonya Mitchell: It was the day she could cash her monthly welfare check for $618—barely enough to cover her own expenses, much less purchase clothes, school supplies and double cheeseburgers for her five children.
But all that changed on Oct. 20, 1997. In a welfare-privatization experiment closely watched across the U.S., the Illinois legislature approved a bill to radically revamp the state's AFDC system and transfer welfare control to the McDonald's Corporation, giving Mitchell and 712,000 other Illinois residents living below the poverty line "a well-deserved break today."
According to Illinois governor Jim Edgar, the partnership between fast food and public assistance makes solid sense. "As hard as the government has tried, the reality is, McDonald's better understands and is better equipped to meet the needs of America's poor than the outdated federal welfare bureaucracy is," Edgar said. "McDonald's deals with millions of unskilled, destitute people every day—it feeds them, employs them, clothes them, and gives them shelter in its spacious, sanitary seating areas."
Edgar said McDonald's will provide those living below the poverty line with a number of benefits each month, including a cash stipend; a book of 25 McFood Stamps redeemable for Big Macs and other sandwich items; immunization for children; and, for pregnant mothers, collectible Flubber cups.
Felix Melanson, McDonaldland Secretary of Health and Human Services, said those with dependents will also receive special scratch-and-win welfare game pieces.
"Here at McDonald's, we strongly believe that poor people deserve a chance," Melanson said. "And we give them just that—a one-in-three chance to win great prizes like soft drinks, official NBA game gear, trips to Disney World, and a grand prize of a free McMedicard, good for an entire year's worth of subsidized, low-cost health care."
McDonaldAid recipients will also be provided with on-site day care for their children. By March 1998, Melanson said, every location will be equipped with a McDonald's Playland, enabling single mothers like Mitchell to look for a job while their children are looked after in a safe, cashier-supervised play area.
"Welfare recipients deserve the same secure, reliable day care for their children that other parents enjoy," Melanson said. "That's why we've made sure that all Playlands are situated in full view of the registers."
According to Melanson, what makes the new, privatized system different is its emphasis on "personal responsibility and self-help." Recipients, he said, "will be required to work up to five hours a week and attend job-training instructional-video presentations in order to remain eligible for McDonaldAid."
Welfare recipients' duties at McDonald's will include light lifting, cup and straw restock, and mopping. Further, all recipients who use the bathroom will be required to wash their hands thoroughly before returning to work.
"The idea here is independence, not dependence," Melanson said. "This is not a handout: These people will be responsible for everything from refilling ketchup dispensers to busing their own tables when they're done eating. They are also responsible for keeping their own uniforms clean and presentable."
While the Illinois privatization plan has been widely praised by many welfare-reform advocates, it does have its detractors. According to state Sen. James Ory (R-Carbondale), the delicious taste of McDonald's food will encourage many people to remain on McDonaldAid rather than look for jobs.
"We need to provide incentives for people to get off welfare. This food does just the opposite," said Ory, co-sponsor of a bill setting a six-piece cap on McNuggets orders for welfare recipients and limiting them to sweet-and-sour sauce only. "Those who are not interested in finding work will take advantage, feeding off the system and its tasty cheeseburgers and fries."
Responding to Ory, McDonald's officials said that a number of deterrents have been built into the new system to prevent people from abusing it.
"We want to help people, but we don't want it to become a lifestyle," said Justin N. King, McDonaldland Secretary of Urban Affairs. "That's why one key feature of McDonaldAid is a strict 30-minute time limit on loitering in the seating area. While eating at McDonald's restaurants, welfare recipients will be expected to make an earnest effort to chew and swallow at all times. If they cease eating at any point during their stay in the restaurant, or remain in the restaurant beyond the allotted 30-minute time limit, they will find themselves out on the street."
Further, to discourage recipients from having additional children just to receive extra food items, condiments will be removed from sandwiches on a sliding scale according to number of dependents. For example, for those with five children, the second child's Big Mac will come without special sauce; the third child's without special sauce and lettuce; the fourth child's without special sauce, lettuce and cheese; and the fifth child's without special sauce, lettuce, cheese and pickles. Those with more than five children will be ineligible for even the onions and sesame-seed bun, receiving two all-beef patties only.
In addition, McDonaldAid recipients will not be eligible for refills once they have left the restaurant premises. "Ours is a strict 'one-visit-per-cup' refill policy," King said.
So far, the privatization experiment is proving successful. In 1996, the Illinois welfare system operated at a loss of $1.2 billion, but since taking over welfare, McDonald's has operated at a surplus of $420 million in Illinois. Other states have taken notice as well: Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia and Oregon are all considering similar fast-food-based welfare programs, and negotiations are already under way between California and El Pollo Loco.
But it is America's poor who stand to benefit the most. "Before, I didn't have anything. Now I have a roof over my head, day care for my kids and Quarter Pounders With Cheese every night," Chicago's Mitchell said. "Plus, my manager says I have potential, and, within six months, I can look forward to becoming part of the McDonald's team. For the first time, I actually have a future. This is my welfare system."