Tuesday, December 30, 2003

'Welcome to Wal-Mart, Can You Spare Some Change?'

I've been harping on this with friends for the past year now -- not sure at all what sparked it -- but people in America -- not sure if the phenomenon is worldwide -- do not have a very firm grasp on relative levels of poverty and wealth. Considering my current level of debt, I'm not entirely sure I do either. Nevertheless, it would take a blind person to not recognize something is fundamentally askew:

If poor Americans were a nation, the population would top Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming and the District of Columbia combined.

That's using the Census Bureau's lowball poverty count of 35 million Americans.

[. . .]

The poverty thresholds for 2002 were $8,628 for a person 65 and older, $9,359 for a person under 65, $12,400 for an adult and child, $14,480 for a couple with one child, and $18,244 for a couple with two children. That $18,244 isn't enough to buy the Patek Philippe gold watch and Hermes purse on the Forbes index of luxury goods.

By the official measure, a senior with just $719 a month in Social Security and other income was not poor. In reality America, many people above the poverty line can't afford housing, utilities, food, health care, transportation and other basic expenses, including taxes.

[. . .]

The poverty rate hit its best mark way back in 1973. The 2002 poverty rate of 12.1 percent was 9 percent higher than 1973's. The 2002 child poverty rate was 19 percent higher than its lowest point in 1969.

None of this, perhaps, is news to anybody. Of course, we all know there are a lot of poor people in America. But who are they?

Answer: Wal-Mart employees.

The Walton's combined $102.5 billion – up from $94 billion in 2002 – nearly matches the wealth of the three richest men: Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates ($46 billion) and Paul Allen ($22 billion) and megainvestor Warren Buffett ($36 billion).

The Walton's $8.5 billion wealth gain in the past year is more than the total budget for Head Start, serving nearly 1 million children.

While the Wal-Mart heirs are among America's richest, Wal-Mart workers are among America's poorest.

Wal-Mart's U.S. workers – most without health benefits – average just $8 an hour, compared with $12 in retail trade generally. Wal-Mart's average wage is lower than the 1968 minimum wage of $8.51, adjusted for inflation. Now the world's largest company, Wal-Mart is rolling back wages in the growing areas it dominates from America to China.

Wal-Mart's CEO pay, by contrast, rose 1,767 percent between 1995 and 2003, according to compensation expert Graef Crystal. CEO Lee Scott's 2003 pay package of $29.8 million amounts to more than $3,400 for every hour of every day of the year.

Shopping at Wal-Mart is hell on earth for a reason, folks.