We live, work, and consume within an increasingly grand, globalized economy. Yet standing amidst its many fruits and blessings, we move about our lives giving little thought to why we’re working, who we’re serving, and how exactly our needs are being met. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” feels more invisible than ever.
In response to our newfound economic order, big and blurry as it is, many have aimed to pave paths toward more “communitarian” ends, epitomized by recent waves of “localist consumerism,” “artisanal shops,” and “social entrepreneurship.” Such efforts can be tremendously fruitful, and insofar as they meet real human needs, we should heed their resistance to blind marches toward “progress.”
I only wish that such movements would appreciate the broader range of possible solutions. The slow and local is all well and good, but something as mundane and mainstream as a local McDonald’s can serve community needs just as well as the trendy mom-and-pops of the future. The big and global is not necessarily the enemy of the small and local.
As Chris Arnade demonstrates through a series of stories, for many low- and middle-income areas, “McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers and reflections of the surrounding neighborhood,” offering a hub for the very sort of social fabric-weaving that crunchy communitarians crave. (Note: I was an employee and then shift manager of a McDonald’s during my teenage years.)
One can be resistant to the nutritional risks of the food — just as I remain resistant to the budgetary risks of overpriced “artisanal donuts” — and still perceive the value that such enterprises bring to local communities everywhere: economic, social, and (dare I say) spiritual.
For many, McDonald’s serves the same function of the latest glorified “social epicenters” and “third spaces” of mobile freelancers, often with even more intricate circles of community. Indeed, though the new wave of hip-and-homey start-ups have surely done their share of community transformation, few can beat McDonald’s at serving within the common constraints of lower-income Americans.
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.
Whether frequented by elderly and retired folks, prayer groups and Bible studies, political organizations, neighborhood associations, or various marginalized persons on the streets, McDonald’s provides a cheap, accessible, and comfortable place for all, delivering services and providing jobs with great efficiency.
Arnade’s article is filled with stories of people who find peace and refuge in the very place that loftier minds are wont to disdain as a curse on the poor:
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…
In almost every franchise, there are tables with people like Betty [who is homeless during daytime hours] escaping from the streets for a short bit. They 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.
In the Bronx, many of my friends who live on the streets are regulars. Steve, who has been homeless for 20 years, uses the internet to check up on sports, find discarded papers to do the crossword puzzle, and generally escape for a while. He and his wife Takeesha will turn a McDonald’s meal into an evening out. Beauty, who has been homeless for five years, uses the internet to check up on her family back in Oklahoma when she can find a computer to borrow.
Most importantly though, McDonald’s provide many with the chance to make real and valuable connections. When faced with the greatest challenges, with a personal loss, wealthier Americans turn to expensive therapists, others without the resources or the availability, turn to each other.
Once again, these sorts of community hubs exist everywhere, and they come in all shapes and sizes. They needn’t be businesses like McDonald’s, but it does seem that our appetite for “enterprise solutions” is limited to “social signalers” and the confines of the small and independent.
The success of McDonald’s in weaving communities doesn’t mean that the economics don’t matter — small, big, whatever. It simply means that we should be careful that our justified fears about big business and rapid change ought not be replaced by a blind prejudice.
Each community is different, and each will require its own set of solutions. As we seek to unpack what really matters and what really works — looking at the roots and fruits of each solution — our economic imaginations ought to remain as wide as possible.