— -- Terrence Wise used to take eight buses every day to get to work at two different fast food franchises, a Burger King and a McDonald's in Kansas City.
Sometimes the 37-year-old said he would get 8-hour shifts from both franchises on the same day and work back-to-back for 16 hours straight. Other times, he said he would only get a few hours a day. The franchises could decide shifts day-by-day, week-by-week.
Even with the two jobs he had when ABC News spoke to him in 2015, Wise said he would make so little money at times that he had to choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries.
“Some may look and say, ‘It’s something you didn’t do right,’” Wise said. “And they think, ‘OK, well you should have stayed in school or should have done this.’ Well, I’m working, I have a family and we’re at where we’re at in this life right now.”
In 1980, the majority of fast food workers were teenagers, but today 75 percent are in their 20s or older and a third of them have children, according to the University of Minnesota and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It wasn’t the life he had planned. Wise said he once dreamed of going to the University of South Carolina, but his mother worked in fast food and the family needed help with paying the bills. So at age 16, Wise got a fast food job, thinking someday he would help out then go on to something better.
“I’ve been at Burger King, what 11 years now, $8 an hour after 11 years of service,” he said.
One of the hardest things he said was watching the leftover food at the end of his shift at McDonald's get thrown away. He said in many franchises, the workers are not allowed to take home leftovers because they say their bosses worry about them making excess food just so they can take it home.
The top companies in the fast food industry made combined profits of $6.6 billion in 2015, according to their public filings. But 52 percent of all American fast food workers are getting some form of public assistance, according to a 2015 study by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.
In a statement to ABC News, McDonald's said independent franchises make their own decisions on wages and throwing away food. "It’s up to our independent franchisees to determine their individual practices," the statement said. "We strive to maintain high food quality and food safety practices and only dispose food when necessary."
Burger King did not immediately return ABC News' requests for comment.
Wise joined the national “Fight For $15” movement arguing for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.
“I know with $15 an hour, if it started tomorrow, I would only have to work one job then I would have an opportunity to go to work and then go to school,” he said.
Arthur Brooks of the Conservative American Enterprise Institute said raising the standard of living for low-wage workers is better achieved through tax credits and refunds. He says if the government raises the minimum wage, it will cost jobs.
“We have wage subsidies, a really wonky thing called the earned income tax credit,” he said. “We shouldn’t require their employer to do that because that’s what will lead to the layoffs.”
Wise argued that if employers pay workers “a living wage,” referring to the proposed $15 an hour minimum, they will put it back into the economy. Besides, he said, an American worker with a job should be able to support himself and live with dignity.
“Nobody wants to get food stamps,” he said. “I want to go in and pull out my cash and buy my food and have insurance through my job.”
But Wanda Austin-Peters, who said she grew up in the projects and eventually owned a Subway franchise in Albany, New York, said she was able to get ahead with the help of a mentor and thinks workers should not start at $15 an hour. She believes that if the minimum wage had gone up that much when she owned the franchise, it would have hurt her business.
“I really can’t wrap my head around the fact that you have a job that requires really no skill,” she said. “It doesn’t warrant that type of a salary.”
In 2015, Wise said he just wanted to be able to have enough money to work only one job, to go back home to South Carolina to visit his mother and maybe take his kids out for a day.
“To be able to take my kids to a water park, to go see a movie -- I haven’t been to the movies since 'The Matrix,’” he said.
Last year, after the Burger King franchise was sold, Wide was not re-hired by the new owners, he says, because he had been protesting with "Fight for $15." The new owner disputes this. Wise is working at a McDonald’s franchise in Kansas City.
At the outset of our reporting on this important story ABC News connected with graduate students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism on this topic. Through a summer immersion program, these students had set out to report on income inequality in the Los Angeles area. The topic was titled “LA: Old Money, New Money, No Money” with each student customizing their own project through original research, reporting and the development of video and graphics. They interviewed people from a wide diversity of gender, age, race and socio-economic backgrounds. The work of these students is organized by topic at this website HERE, where the projects have been posted. One former student, Helen Zhao, produced a piece on the American Dream, which can be viewed HERE.
About half of American adults lived in middle-income households in 2014, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data. Pew Research offers an income calculator feature on their website that allows you to see whether you are part of the American middle class.