Walmart and the Welfare State

My friend Ned Resnikoff has a good summary of one of the more fascinating aspects of Walmart’s ongoing and escalating struggle with its workers, the recently leaked documents showing a systematic effort on the part of management to depress employee wages as much as possible. The Huffington Post  was first to report on the document, which was originally passed around among Sam’s Club bigwigs and is used by Walmart, too. A Walmart employee subsequently spoke to the media as well, describing what it’s like to sustain a family on Walmart wages:

Despite Walmart’s insistence that employees are paid fairly, low compensation ranks high among striking workers’ grievances. In a conference call organized last week by the campaign Making Change at Walmart, several employees of the company complained of poverty-level wages.

“I struggle to support my family on $14,000 a year,” said Sara Gilbert, a customer service manager at the company for three years. “My children are in state housing and we get subsidized housing and food stamps.”

Economist Julianne Malveaux said, “[Walmart] employees earn around $8 an hour. This is not a living wage, this is not a working wage, and especially not a living wage when they’re not working 30 hours a week, which would allow them to get health insurance.”

She said that many employees who would otherwise be working full-time were scheduled for 24 or 26 hours a week, so that Walmart would not obliged to provide them with full-time benefits.

Not to resurrect ugly memories, but you’ll recall that we just had a national election in which the mantra, for months if not years, was jobs, jobs, jobs. Implicit is the idea that a job is enough: enough to raise your family, maintain your dignity, and be a real, productive, valuable member of society. Enough to live the American Dream. In America, a job is supposed to be enough.

From roughly the end of World War II until the mid-to-late 1970s, that was more or less true. But we all know what started happening during the 70s, even if we can’t agree on why it happened or what to do about it. Wages stopped rising but the costs of necessities like health care, education, and housing did not. And so we have countless millions like Sara Gilbert, whose story reminds me of my favorite Bruce Springsteen lyric, from “The River,”

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?

More specifically, take a second and read about the donations the Walton family has made recently. Get ready to be not-surprised!

Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and (according to Forbes) the 10th-richest American, has given $200,000 to Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mitt Romney. So has her brother, Jim Walton (the youngest son of Sam Walton and the ninth-richest American). Jim Walton also gave $100,000 to Our Destiny super PAC – the organization backing former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsmann. Christy Walton, the sixth-richest American, and widow of John T. Walton (another son of Sam Walton), gave another $50,000 to Our Destiny.

On June 30, 2011, Alice and Jim Walton, along with Jim’s wife, Lynne Walton, all contributed $30,800 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and another $30,400 apiece to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In total, so far this cycle these three Waltons (and spouses), have contributed more than $813,000 to political campaigns or outside spending groups in this election cycle – every dollar to Republicans.

I’m not sure if the Walton family political worldview is best described as chutzpah or ignorance or fecklessness. Because without the big government welfare state that their chosen candidates promised to strip to the marrow of its bones, the Waltons would could not get away with paying their employees such a pittance. As the example of Sara Gilbert shows, Walmart’s willful near-immiseration of its workers is, today, only feasible due to big government programs like public housing and food stamps.

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