MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Fast food workers are protesting today. From Oakland to Memphis, in 100 cities across the country, they're rallying for a pay hike to $15 an hour. NPR's Allison Aubrey attended one rally outside a McDonald's here in the nation's capital.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: McDonald's employee Shamethia Butler (ph) was scheduled to go to work today. But instead, she decided to join the protest.
What are you striking for today?
SHAMETHIA BUTLER: I've been trying to up minimum wage from $8.25 to at least $15 an hour so we can live.
AUBREY: And how much do you make?
BUTLER: Eight twenty-five.
AUBREY: And is that enough to pay your bills?
BUTLER: Not even.
AUBREY: Wearing her golden arches uniform, she joined about 100 workers outside a McDonald's near Capitol Hill. Shamethia says with two kids to support, her McDonald's paycheck doesn't even fully cover her rent, much less groceries. So she gets by on food stamps, though they've been recently cut back.
BUTLER: I feed a family, so, you know. We - I have a big boy, and he can eat. He plays football. So, you know, my food be gone probably by the 15 or before the end of the month, and I'm struggling.
AUBREY: Economists say a living wage in this town is closer to 20 bucks an hour if you have a child to support. And according to the coalition organizing these fast food rallies, which includes organized labor, there are lots of workers like Shamethia Butler. A recent study found more than half - 52 percent of fast food workers - rely on public assistance to make ends meet, things like food stamps and Medicaid.
MICHAEL LIVINGSTON: That's exactly right. They work full-time - when they can. And they can't afford to live.
AUBREY: That's Rev. Michael Livingston of Interfaith Worker Justice. He says at a time when everyone from the pope to President Obama is talking about income inequality, it's time for action. And his hope is that the vast divide between these workers here and images of McDonald's executives flying around on a new luxury jet will get people thinking.
LIVINGSTON: It makes me angry. It's disgusting. It's greed at a level that is almost incomprehensible. Yet it happens so frequently that I have to accept it as reality.
AUBREY: One policy move that lots of folks like Livingston say would help is a hike in the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour. And there is growing political momentum for this. But some economists warn that there's no way the economy could handle taking it up to $15.
MICHAEL STRAIN: I would oppose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
AUBREY: That's Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute. He says though he understands the anger that workers feel over the growing divide between have and have-nots, solving this problem is tough. He says hiking the minimum wage would have unintended consequences. Fast food companies, in order to remain profitable, would have to cut back on the workers they hire - and maybe even replace them.
STRAIN: They would rely more on automation and more on technology because the cost of technology is cheaper relative to workers when wages go up. And you would have a situation where low-skill workers are just priced out of the labor market.
AUBREY: Many labor economists disagree. They point to studies that suggest a hike in minimum wage can stimulate the economy by putting more money in the pockets of workers and help keep restaurants and other businesses profitable. As for McDonald's, the company did not weigh in on today's protests, which were held in 100 cities. But on the issue of higher wages, McDonald's says they are paying competitive rates and offer lots of opportunities for advancement. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.