Wednesday, September 21, 2005

blessed wal-mart

If you mention the Red Cross or FEMA to people in Slidell, you hear rants about help that didn’t arrive and phone lines that are always busy. If you mention state or national politicians, you hear obscenities.

But if you visit the Wal-Mart and the Sam’s Club stores here, you hear shoppers who have been without power for weeks marveling that there are still generators in stock (and priced at $304.04). You hear about the trucks that rolled in right after the hurricane and the stuff the stores gave away: chain saws and boots for rescue workers, sheets and clothes for shelters, water and ice for the public.

“This was the only place we could find water those first days,” said Rashan Smith, who was shopping with her three children at Wal-Mart on Saturday. “I still haven’t managed to get through to FEMA. It’s hard to say, but you get more justice at Wal-Mart.”

That’s the same assessment you hear from public officials in Louisiana, and there’s even been talk of letting Wal-Mart take over FEMA’s job. The company already has its own emergency operations center, where dozens of people began preparing for the hurricane the week before it hit by moving supplies and trucks into position.

Read the whole thing here. Via T19. I remember reading in an article in the campus newspaper a few years ago how criticism of the faceless, greedy maw of Wal-Mart can overlook one important fact: they provide a lot of (relatively) high quality stuff, really, really cheaply. That's a boon to poor people. This story is a case in point.


J-Tron said...

I am happy to see Wal-Mart doing something possitive in the Gulf Coast region. I'm happy to see anyone doing something positive down there, especially since FEMA still hasn't really managed to address many of the ongoing issues.

I'd be careful, however, not to lavish too much praise onto Wal-Mart for being an economic boon to poor people. Yes, they sell things at very cheap prices, which often makes them the only place in town that is affordable for poor people to shop. But a large part of how they're able to do that is by taking it out of the pay and benefits of their employees who are also usually poor. And there are many communities across the country where Wal-Mart has swepped in, economically crippled all the local business and forced them under, and then pulled out because profits were not high enough even in an environment which they monopolized, causing the complete erosion of local economies.

Anonymous said...

All true j-tron, but have you considered that those poor people receiving low pay and low benefits might otherwise be at no pay and no benefits living in poverty off of your tax dollars. Outside the penal system and military there's no forced labor in America and these poor who choose to work at Wal-Mart actually PAY taxes that help other poor. I don't know that those "forced under" businesses provided more to the local economy. Maybe, maybe not. Just a thought. I emotionally agree with your anti Wal-Mart sentiment but it is what it is and it ain't gonna change. I'm really impressed with Wal-Mart's response to Katrina. There have been some very good folk in the Walton family. DDX

Thorpus said...

In New Haven I got sick of rich, white Yale profs talking about how they loved poor people and stood up for their welfare, but then they talked down Wal-mart in all their East-coast elitism, even though that's where poor people can get more food and clothing and everything for their hard-earned or government-supplied dollar. I don't see you as this, of course, J-tron, but there are plenty such elitist hypocrites out there.

On a different note, I don't see that it's such a bad thing for anything but sentimental reasons that Wal-mart puts Mom and Pop stores out of business. And I have the right to say this, because not only did I grow up in a small Oklahoma town where that was precisely what happened, but also I have family who owned retail stores in the South who were driven out of business by Sam Walton. This is my family I'm talking about here: they just couldn't compete, and that's a good thing. The free market did its job, eliminating inefficient businesses and rewarding smart business-people like Sam Walton. When the free market is free to work, it's better for the consumer and the consumer knows it. It's better for the poor consumer, especially.

And as far as Wal-Mart labor policies go, I also have the right to speak there because I have family that works for Wal-Mart in Florida. I love the idea of a non-union shop. When a business owner does his job and cares for his own employees, there is no need for a union. Labor unions are only necessary when management has dropped the ball. From my family's experience in retail both working for and in competition with Wal-Mart, I can say that those stores bring great jobs to a poor community. They often become a focal point of community life, filling more than just the role of a retail store. Think mall: a place to gather socially and build community. Laugh at this if you want but beware East-coast elitism. Wal-Marts add a lot to a small, poor community, and they help economies. They employ more people, in my experience, than they put out of work. When they leave, what's to keep Mom and Pop from repoening their little store anyway? That's the way the free market works.

J-Tron said...

Mom and Pop cannot reopen at that point because Mom and Pop have either moved away to try and plant their flag elsewhere, gotten themselve employed at Wal-Mart which has now left them unemployed again, or have simply been left too economically injured to be able to try again. I'm not going to trade stories here. You've all seen communities where Wal-Mart has done good things? Fine. Wonderful even. I'm certainly not suggesting a boycott. But when they close up shop and leave communities bankrupt, it's good old American tax dollars that get used to help clean up the mess (coming largely from the poor and the middle class I might add, but that's a whole different issue).

As far as the treatment of workers issue goes, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich's _Nickled_and_Dimed_. Whether she is an "east coast elitist" or not, she puts her money where her mouth is, taking on jobs in America that are supposed to provide a minimum of what people need and attempting to live off them for a year. One of the last jobs she takes up is at Wal-Mart. It was an eye-opener for me, even having read some of the dispassionate reports about Wal-Mart's business practices.

Anonymous said...

It is a wonderful thing if Wal Mart is so great for the poor, but in my humble opinion, they have destroyed American towns. They are the primary reason so many small towns are now boarded up and struggling. Those Mom and Pops simply can't compete when there is not a level playing field and they can not buy the same merchandise for the same price as Wal Mart and hence sell it anywhere close to the same price. Hooray for consumers, but do we win ultimately? I'm proud of little Williamsburg, Virginia near my home who wouldn't let them in. MMBX