Wal-Mart, income inequality, and Pope Francis

Written by: Michelle Kaminski

Primary Source: UnionWork

Wal-Mart is getting a lot of critical attention this holiday shopping season.  Some of it is as a result of labor activism, and some of it is just more of the insensitive missteps we’ve come to expect from Wal-Mart.  I’ll mention four things here:


1.  This graphic comes from AFSCME.  The more people shop at Wal-Mart, the more it costs taxpayers.  Taxpayers reportedly spent $2.66 billion on safety net programs for Wal-Mart employees.  I’m not sure exactly where that number comes from, but here’s a report from Congressional staff that looks at the issue.

2.  Remember the days when employers gave their employees a turkey for their holiday dinner?   Instead, Wal-Mart is asking its low-wage workers to donate food items to other low-wage Wal-Mart workers.  In break rooms and locker rooms in some Ohio Wal-Mart stores, management has put out collection bins for canned goods and other donations.  In my view, it would be much better if Wal-Mart paid their employees enough so that they could afford to buy food.  (It seems ridiculous to even have to say something like that, but that’s how severe the problem of income inequality has become.)

3.  The Wal-Mart family won’t be struggling to provide their own turkey dinner.  In 2012, four of Sam Walton’s heirs (three of his children and the widow of the fourth) occupy spots six through nine of the list of wealthiest Americans.  Their combined wealth is $138 billion, just nosing out the combined wealth of the two wealthiest Americans, Bill Gates and Warrant Buffet.  Gates and Buffet have pledged to give most of the money away to charities

But the Waltons are the poster children for what some people call “Reverse Robin Hood-ism:”  robbing from the poor and giving to the rich.  They don’t pay their employees enough money to live on; they squeeze their suppliers; and they demand tax breaks before they will even open up a store.  Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the country, and its owners are among the wealthiest in the country.  They can afford to pay their own way, instead of asking us to pay for them.  Check out this web page, and scroll down for the great graphic:

4.  A Wal-Mart worker in Michigan was fired for helping a woman who was being assaulted in the parking lot.  This seems even more heartless than usual for the company.  And, Wal-Mart did eventually offer Kristopher Oswald his job back, after seeing just how bad they looked in the media.  But Oswald was smart enough to wonder how the company would treat him once he returned.  Last I heard, Oswald was not planning to return to work at Wal-Mart, and had other offers.

I really don’t understand why people shop at Wal-Mart. To shop there is to support poverty and exploitation.  There are other options, other stores with affordable prices.

 Tracking these times:  How students see these issues

I teach an undergraduate class about work and society.  I know that we used to think of college students as liberal, but that hasn’t been the case for quite some time.  Studies say that students leave college with the same political views with which they entered.  That generally means they have their parents’ views, left or right.  I know that for me, college was a time of rethinking my family’s opinions — some I agreed with and some I didn’t.  But I thought things through, rather than just accepting what I was told.

Right now, I have 250 students.  I am amazed at the range of opinions they have.  Most students are optimistic and have every reason to believe they will do well economically.  Some have seen their parents or communities suffer the effects of plant closings and lack of opportunity, and they are more cautious, although still optimistic about their own futures.  But they do see flaws in the economic system that could be corrected, and they think society has an obligation to help those who have fallen on hard times.  But some of my students show no concern or compassion for their fellow human beings, and have bought into the view that the market is all that matters.  One said something like this:  “I don’t