It’s an exaggeration to claim, as John Tierney does in the latest issue of City Journal, that “no institution or agency has done more to help the poor than Walmart.” After all, the Christian church has certainly done more. I’d even argue that in America individual subsets of the church, such as the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, have even done more. But on the short-list of anti-poverty institutions that have done the most for the poor, Walmart certainly ranks high.
Tierney points out that New York City mayor Bill De Blasio and the city council are hurting the city’s poor by keeping out the retail giant:
Walmart’s benefits are obvious to shoppers and to economists like Jason Furman, who served in the Clinton administration and was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. In a paper, “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story,” Furman cited estimates that Walmart, by driving down prices, saved the typical American family more than $2,300 annually. That was about the same amount that a family on food stamps then received from the federal government.
How could any progressive with a conscience oppose an organization that confers such benefits? How could de Blasio and the city council effectively take money out of the pockets of the poorest families in New York? Because—though they would deny it—they care a lot more about pleasing powerful labor interests, especially the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which helped lead the long fight to keep Walmart out of the five boroughs.
As a free market-loving conservative I’m naturally leery of Big Business (which as Milton Friedman said is often the biggest enemy of the free market system). But as a conservative who hates seeing people in poverty, I’m cautiously supportive of the way that Walmart has improved the lives of millions of Americans. Several years ago, in an article in which I argued the “conservative case” for Walmart, I said,
Growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line, I can appreciate the value of inexpensive food. That is one of the primary reasons I appreciate the company—and the reason I think other conservatives should appreciate it too. There is admittedly a lot to dislike about the company, but as former low-income rural resident I think there are a number of reasons why conservatives should be more supportive of Walmart (and similar poverty-alleviating corporations).
I was in high school in Clarksville, Texas the year Walmart opened in our town in the mid-1980s. The impact on our community was immeasurable and only slightly less disruptive than when the Kalahari bushman found a Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Life in our small town would never be the same.
The biggest change was that we now had choices. Before, if we needed quality consumer products we had to travel thirty miles down the road to Paris. The members of the local retail oligopoly offered a limited range of products at outrageously inflated prices (that seems to be forgotten in the hagiographic idealization of small-town retailers). Options that were taken for granted by people who lived in urban areas—the ability to buy a Sony Walkman and the latest Duran Duran cassette—were completely closed to our rural community. Sam Walton changed all that.
In fact, it would be hard to underestimate the impact of “everyday low prices” had on us rural Texans. Even low-income families like mine (i.e., the dirt poor trailer park dwellers) were able to afford items that were once considered luxuries.