When I was growing up, I learned “There’s no such thing as a bargain,” and “You get what you pay for.” It may sound like heresy in our bargain-hungry society but I still believe these principles are true.
No Forest Park store offers better bargains than Wal-Mart, yet I rarely shop there. I’d rather support our homegrown businesses than a giant chain. It turns out there are more principled reasons for not buying from America’s largest retailer.
I was talking with a community organizer named Ken Snyder, who lives in Forest Park. Among other causes, Snyder crusades for living wages. His coalition has been active in the campaign to have the minimum wage raised.
Snyder pointed out there are hidden costs to Wal-Mart’s “every day low prices.” Because Wal-Mart pays such low wages and provides health insurance to less than half its employees, some Wal-Mart associates are among the working poor. Taxpayers have to partially support these workers in the form of food stamps, public housing and Medicaid. Snyder estimates Illinois taxpayers pay $2 billion per year to support the working poor.
In his book, “The World Is Flat” author Thomas L. Friedman pointed out the irony of Wal-Mart associates not making enough to be self-sufficient, when the chain’s founder, Sam Walton, was an American symbol of self-sufficiency.
This irony was not lost on Wal-Mart’s CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., who said the chain has to recognize its obligation to society, as well as to its customer. In fact, Scott worried that if we continue to lose manufacturing jobs in the U.S., “one day we’ll all be selling hamburgers to each other.”
None of us want a future limited to jobs where we wear a smock, or sell fast food. We’re citizens first–not just consumers. “Some people do not shop at big box stores,” Snyder said, “as a protest against economic injustice.”
But not all big box stores are alike. Costco is practically the anti Wal-Mart. Costco pays its workers a living wage and furnishes health insurance to 96 percent of its workforce. As a result, Costco has a more stable, self-sufficient workforce and its profit margin is half that of Wal-Mart’s.
Costco fits more of the Henry Ford model of management. The car manufacturer paid his workers enough money to afford a Ford. Thus, he created an upwardly mobile customer base. Downward mobility seems to be the Wal-Mart model. Their presence tends to drive down wages in a community.
What does this all mean for Forest Park? Well, I heard one of our politicians say we should attract more big-box stores to Roosevelt Road. If so, they should be stores that pay their workers a living wage. Because the so-called bargains we enjoy come with some heavy hidden costs.