Defending Walmart’s low pay puts the lie to conservative philosophy

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Standing up for Walmart's employment practices has become nothing less than a badge of honor among conservatives who view the ability of the nation's largest employer to benefit from the low wages the market will currently bear as a fundamental win for free market capitalism.

After all, they would tell you, if people are willing to work for wages that keep them ensconced in poverty, why should Walmart not take advantage of this and do the job management was, apparently, intended by The Almighty to do-pass the profits of inadequate wages along to the company's shareholders?

As few of these supposed free markers are willing to step up and acknowledge that they really don't much care if Walmart employees can't feed their families on what they earn-so long as the share price advances-they have developed another tact, one expressed in a recent article posted by my Forbes colleague, Tim Worstall, under the headline, "If WalMart Jobs Are So Terrible Why Do So Many People Want Them?"

It's a line of reasoning I now hear on an almost daily basis from my conservative friends and one that has caused me to spend far more time than I should concocting alternate headlines to drive home the sheer absurdity of the question.

My current favorite is "If Chemotherapy Is So Terrible Why Do So Many Cancer Patients Want It?"

Just as most appreciate that, despite the terrors of chemotherapy, one will submit to it when the alternative is far worse, most Americans are adequately equipped to understand that people who want and need to work will take virtually anything available to them when the alternative is no work at all-even if that job pays outrageously low wages, the occasional unsafe work environment and renders a second job all but impossible. However, what is so often missed in this overly used meme by The Right is how this feeble defense of Walmart's employment practices serves to put the lie to so much of what constitutes today's version of conservative doctrine.

In Worstall's article, he excitedly points out that the new Walmart stores in Washington DC have received 23,000 applications for just 600 positions, noting-ironically I suppose-that this is a higher application to acceptance ratio than what takes place at Harvard University.

By the standards of even the harshest welfare critic-or anyone who is of a frame of mind to believe that providing long-term unemployment benefits do some great disservice to the unemployed (yes, I'm talking to you Rand Paul)-the huge number of people competing for those Washington DC Walmart jobs-jobs that will not pay them enough to creep above the federal poverty level- makes it awfully hard to make the standard right-wing argument that many Americans would rather cruise through life on the government dole.

Indeed, if the Washington DC Walmart application data alone does not put the lie to the Mitt Romney 47 percent quote, I sincerely don't know what does. If this statistic does not drive home the point that the overwhelming majority of Americans are willing to do just about anything in the effort to support their families, again, I don't know what does.

But this is not the only example that reveal's the inconsistencies of conservative support for the Walmart way of doing business.

It is hardly a secret that Walmart's low wages leave many of their employees to depend on government programs such as food stamps and Medicaid; programs that, in general, conservatives disdain. What's more, the average Walmart employee who is married with just one child is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit that is refunded to low earning workers. How exactly does this jibe with GOP theory such as that expressed by Congressman Bob Woodall, Republican of Georgia, who claims that the poor do not pay enough in taxes?

While writers such as Mr. Worstall are satisfied to comfort themselves in their support of America's largest employer by noting that Walmart can't be all that bad if so many people are struggling to get in, a comment posted to Worstall's piece by a woman named Sandra does a far better job than I could hope to do in explaining reality to Mr. Worstall and his fellow travelers.

Sandra explains how things really work at Walmart. "With so many still out of work, they have their pick. They will bring in a person for a first level interview, often with two to three hours notice. I have had this happen four times. From my experience I have learned the following: if you have a history of earning a fair wage, they don't want you. If you are not available 24/7, they are not interested.
 And heaven help you if you want more than 20 hours a week. If you are a senior citizen forget it. There are no more greeters.
They want them young and if possible in a position to get the company tax breaks for hiring people on welfare and food stamps."

Sandra's paragraph offers us all some meaningful wisdom on this topic-wisdom that I hope Worstall and the other Walmart apologists will consider before again pretending that Walmart must be a fine place to work given how many are trying to land a job at the company.

As I strongly suspect that Mr. Worstall would note that a real "go-getter" trying to feed the family would get out there and pick up a second job to make ends meet, we can only hope that he pays particular attention to Sandra  on a point that I have written about time and again . You don't get a job at Walmart unless you are willing to forego that second job. Why? Because the company obligates you, as a condition of employment, to be available to work on just a few hours notice. Even the Walmart defense forces would have to acknowledge that it is awfully hard to take a second job when your primary employment requires you to be on-call 24/7 or risk losing your job.

Then there is Sandra's reminder that the company doesn't want to employ people who have a history of earning a decent wage. I ask my Walmart defending friends what this says about the company? Since when is it a cornerstone of free enterprise and American capitalism to disqualify potential workers willing to work hard simply because they have been more successful in the past?

I understand that all the words in the world are not likely to change the mindset of those who feel duty bound to stand up for  Walmart's employment practices as a bulwark of free enterprise-despite the fact that the company breaks every free market rule in the book by rigging their payment system to allow you and I to take care of their employees' health care needs via the Medicaid paid for with our tax dollars.

But is it really asking too much that the Walmart apologists stop using this ridiculous line of defense where they pretend that people who are begging for these jobs are doing so because Walmart is such a nifty place to work?

It's bad enough that so many people find themselves in a circumstance that forces them to take work which leaves them below the national poverty line. Creating a narrative that these people are working for substandard pay because they want to is nothing short of demeaning and offensive.

So to Mr. Worstall, and the others who enjoy supporting Walmart's desire to pay these people so poorly as if it is some defense of the American Way, I don't ask that you share any concern for these people who are trying hard to make the best of their circumstances.

All I ask is that you stop making fools of them with your false and undignified narrative.

You might also want to consider this - if you cannot defend Walmart's wage and benefits practices without resorting to the absurd, could it possibly be that the time has come to take a more objective and clear-eyed look at what is happening at our nation's largest employer?

Contact Rick at thepolicypage@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo: Eric A. Gordon/PW

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  • You say:

    "Just as most appreciate that, despite the terrors of chemotherapy, one will submit to it when the alternative is far worse, most Americans are adequately equipped to understand that people who want and need to work will take virtually anything available to them when the alternative is no work at all-even if that job pays outrageously low wages, the occasional unsafe work environment and renders a second job all but impossible. "

    I say:

    "The answer is of course that the WalMart jobs are better than the alternatives. Those alternatives could be not having a job at all, working in fast food say, or at Target TGT -0.36% or wherever. The one thing we do know is that those WalMart jobs are better than one or all of those alternatives. This is revealed preferences in action: that people apply for the jobs means that they want them."

    I'm afraid I don't see where the disagreement is. Sure, these are not great jobs. And equally certainly they are better than the alternatives on offer.

    I even go on to point out what needs to be done to make the WalMart jobs better:

    "Rather, it is to encourage more people to set up more businesses offering other jobs. As those alternatives proliferate then those offering the best opportunities and working conditions will get the workers and those offering bad conditions and or pay will find that they have to improve them in order to retain their workforce."

    Posted by Tim Worstall, 12/12/2013 9:20am (10 months ago)

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