The Corporate Daddy
Walmart, Starbucks, and the Fight Against Inequality
JUNE 19, 2014
For some time now, Republicans in Congress have given up the pretense of doing anything to improve the lot of most Americans. Raising the minimum wage? They won’t even allow a vote to happen. Cleaner air for all? They may partially shut down the government in a coming fight on behalf of major polluters. Add to that the continuing obstruction of student loan relief efforts, and numerous attempts to defund health care, and you have a party actively working to make life miserable for millions.
So, our nation turns to Starbucks. And Walmart. In the present moment, both of those global corporate monoliths are poised to do more to affect the huge chasm between the rich and everybody else than anything that’s likely to come out of John Boehner’s House of Representatives.
As long as the Supreme Court says that corporations are citizens, they may as well act like them. Starbucks is trying to be dutiful — in its own prickly, often self-righteous, spin-heavy way — while Walmart is a net drain on taxpayers, forcing employees into public assistance with its poverty-wage structure.
“In the last few years, we have seen the fracturing of the American dream,” said the Starbucks chief executive, Howard Schultz, in announcing a company plan to reimburse the cost of college tuition for employees. “The question for all of us is, should we accept that, or should we try to do something about it?”
It’s a sad day when we have to look to corporations for education, health care and basic ways to boost the middle class. Most advanced nations do those things for their people. We used to — witness the G.I. Bill, which helped millions of returning soldiers get a lift to a better life. But you go to war against the income gap with the system you have, and ours is currently broken. By default, we have no choice but to lean on our corporate overlords.
Walmart, the nation’s top private employer and the world’s largest public corporation, is a big part of the problem — and could be a big part of the solution. Their humiliating wages force thousands of employees to look to food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of welfare. A sign appearing at a Walmart in Ohio last year, asking people to donate food so that the company’s employees “could enjoy Thanksgiving,” was a perfect symbol of what’s wrong with the nation’s most despised retailer. Working at Walmart may not make you poor, but it certainly keeps you poor — at the expense of the rest of us.
By one measure, done by House Democrats last year in looking at data from Wisconsin, the average Walmart superstore cost taxpayers $904,000 a year in various subsidies, or more than $5,000 per employee.
Walmart disputes these figures, claiming the average full-time store worker makes at least $12 an hour, or enough to be just above the poverty level for a family of four. But these numbers are skewed by higher pay for management. The average “associate” at Walmart makes $8.81 an hour — poverty wage — according to the market-research firm IBISWorld, as of 2011. Another independent source, Payscale, says the average is under $11 an hour. No matter the exact figure, there’s no dispute that Walmart’s business model forces thousands of hard-working people to look for outside help just to get by.