I was with some friends the other night, and Dee, my partner, was “confessing” that he’d gone to Walmart on Thanksgiving Day to buy a tool for the yard work he was doing that morning. He was a bit apologetic. I looked around the room and realized that this particular group of friends would not have any hesitation about shopping at Walmart, not on Thanksgiving Day, not on Black Friday, not any day of the week.
I, on the other hand, consider Walmart the epitome of what’s wrong with consumerism and only half-jokingly refer to it as “The Evil Empire.” I’ve shopped there twice in my life, and still feel a twinge of guilt about it.
I’ve been quick to explain that Walmart is worse than other stores like that because their Board of Directors supports racism and sexism in promoting people. I’m convinced of that because I know the Board recommended that stockholders vote not to release data on the percentages of women and African-Americans in management.
But mostly I’ve felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, tilting at windmills. By not shopping at Walmart, I’ve accomplished absolutely nothing. It felt right to me, but was pretty futile.
Lately, with Walmart workers striking, and a bunch of people stepping up in support of that, I’m feeling like there might be the possible hope that someday, something might actually change. And ~ it’s making me think about where I stand and how it makes sense in my world view. It is not simple.
Walmart employs lots of people. The Board of Directors has the right to run the company any way they choose. Lots of other employers don’t pay some of their employees a living wage. Those things are true.
I’ve heard people say that Walmart was designed to hire college students, who would work there for brief stints and then move on, rather than people trying to support families. (Yes there are a lot of assumptions there about college students and families and the worth of an employee.) That may have been true ~ it’s certainly not true anymore.
Here are the facts that shape my thinking.
The average salary for a Walmart associate is $15,600. NOT the starting salary, the average. Poverty level for a family of four is $22,000. Poverty level for one person is $11,170.
Walmart has more employees eligible for Medicaid and Food Stamps than any other employer.
Six members of the Walton family have wealth totaling the wealth of the bottom 30% of Americans. NOTE: This doesn’t mean income. It means net worth. This is important.
At Forbes, source of the richest 400 list, Tim Worstall wrote a response to the Waltons wealth claim. He did not dispute the accuracy of the statistic but offered some broader perspective.
“Wealth is always more unequally distributed than income,” Worstall wrote. “By the way, it isn’t even true that all of those households with zero or negative wealth are what we would call poor, either. It’s entirely possible to have no net assets while having a good income, even a high income. All you need to have is debts higher than your assets: something that will almost certainly be true of anyone with student debt and fresh out of college, for example.”
He added: “If you’ve no debts and have $10 in your pocket you have more wealth than 25 percent of Americans.”
“Bivens, for good measure, calculated the comparison of the Waltons vs. all Americans after removing households with a negative net worth — those that drag down the overall average and make the Waltons’ advantage look greater. He found that the Walmart heirs’ $89.5 billion “is still equal to the combined net worth of the bottom 33.2 million families (about 28.2 percent of the total).”
There’s nothing wrong with the Waltons being wealthy. Nothing wrong with them running Walmart any way they want to.
But let’s be clear. If we believe that, then we must also say:
There’s nothing wrong with people being on food stamps and having Medicaid for their health insurance. Nothing wrong with it. We need to recognize that people who work for companies like Walmart DESERVE those benefits, that we choose to provide them.
Not everyone can get a “better job.” Not everyone can work two jobs. People have children, people have elderly parents they’re caring for, people go to school.
People need food, and they need health care. That’s not optional. Unless we’re prepared to watch people die in the streets, people need food and health care.
So maybe the taxpayers need to help support the Waltons by subsidizing their employees’ salaries. Maybe that’s fine. But then we need to quit acting like people who get food stamps or Medicaid are less hardworking than the rest of us. We need to just accept that some companies need to make more profit than others, and we need to pay for that.
Or maybe we need to hold the company accountable for paying a living wage.
When Papa John’s CEO said he would close stores, cut jobs and make workers part-time because of the new health insurance laws, we reacted with outrage and promises of a Papa John’s boycott. Now, the CEO is saying he was misquoted, that he didn’t say that at all.
People need food. We need healthcare. Now is the time for us to hold companies accountable.
Yes, they can choose to do anything they want to. And we can choose whether or not to shop there.