Wal-Mart and the myth of the lazy poor.

Fed up with hearing left-wingers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein natter on about how bad Wal-Mart is, Charles Platt decided to get a job there and prove them wrong. Andrew Sullivan, of course, approvingly links to his post and highlights his conclusion: 

Subsequently I considered writing about my brief experience, but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience, and the writer tends to be dismissed as either hopelessly naive or bribed by corporate America. … Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

Not having read any of Ehrenreich’s books, I can’t speak to how effectively Platt demolishes her thesis. (Though I’d note that criticizing Wal-Mart, a specific company, does not in and of itself amount to denouncing the “free market.”) But there are a couple of obvious problems with Platt’s experiment. First, Platt joined up with the specific intention of disproving Ehrenreich by having a pleasant experience working at Wal-Mart. Unsurprisingly enough, he found his “brief” time at the company pleasant:

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

Platt does not tell us how long he spent at Wal-Mart, but I’m struck by how many of his observations could have been gleaned from observing employees (the liberal dress code) or simply talking to management (everything else). In other words, he worked there long enough to confirm his own prejudices, but not long enough to learn what it would be like to work there for, well, a long time. The fact that he was fortunate enough to have a pleasant supervisor doesn’t amount to much of a recommendation; it doesn’t take a wild leap of logic to conclude that a bad-tempered supervisor might have made an already “dull” job miserable. (For a truly harrowing account of how miserable it might be for someone who worked there for “a couple of years,” as opposed to a “brief experience,” check out the sixth comment on Platt’s post.) 

Still, Platt insists, his co-workers were happy to be working there:

Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.

Platt’s decision to highlight these particular sentiments is highly curious, because they are every bit as much a “denunciation of the free market” as any liberal’s diatribe against Wal-Mart. “Mom-and-pop” stores are not any less part of the free market because liberals like to shop there. An economy entirely dominated by Wal-Marts might be very efficient and “benign” (just like the Wal-Mart Platt worked at), but it would not be much of a “free” market, unless we define that not as an economy in which everyone has the opportunity to rise to the top, but one which is merely free of government intervention.

Though it’s easy to make fun of left-wingers’ endless enthusiasm for “local” businesses, the sentiment is not inherently left-wing. The surest proof of this is that conservative politicians rarely make appeals to Wal-Mart executives in their speeches, or declaim the glories of General Motors. Rather, they exalt the magic of the “free enterprise” system, in which every American is free not merely to work as a cog in a “benign” corporate machine but to own and run his own business (should he be so inclined). That system does not require the nonexistence of corporations, but it does require a healthy and thriving market of small businesses. 

Last spring, I did a story on El-Con Mall, Tucson’s oldest mall, which turned into a “ghost mall” sometime during the mid-’90s. The handful of local business owners who were still running thriving stores (a barbershop, a poster shop) were gregarious and talkative, regaling me with stories of the mall’s fitful attempts to revive itself, the UA celebrities (Channing Frye, Lute Olson) who frequented their shops, and how a local neighborhood successfully rallied to prevent a Wal-Mart from opening there in 1999. The other stores’ employees, of course, couldn’t tell me anything; all they could do was glumly hand me a number to call, where I could speak to someone in California who’d never laid eyes on the mall. It was a striking lesson in the inherent chilliness of corporate enterprise. The local employees couldn’t tell me anything for the same reason a McDonald’s employee can’t give you his opinion of the food; they might compromise the reputation of the company. Even had I been able to talk to the CEO, he couldn’t have told me anything much, for the same reason. In short, there was no way at all for anyone in these places to give an honest assessment of what it was like to work there. All I would have gleaned would have been publicity boilerplate. In short, corporate enterprise almost inevitably robs employees and employers alike of any public voice. (The free-marketer’s riposte to this, of course, is: “They’re free to work somewhere else if they don’t like it.” Which is only true if the “mom and pop” stores Pratt scorns continue to thrive.)

This brings me to my second, and far more serious, problem with Platt’s experiment. This, it turns out, was his inspiration: 

If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable bookScratch Beginnings, now being promoted through www.scratchbeginnings.com, describes how he went through an experience far more gruelling than my brief flirtation with low-paying work. He placed himself in a homeless shelter with $25 in his pocket, found a job as a day laborer, then worked for a moving company, and after 10 months had a pickup truck, an apartment, and $2,500 in savings. His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.

Either there is no poverty problem (a concoction of myth-spinning liberals), or the poverty problem is entirely created by poor people and their inability to “live carefully on a budget and work hard.” It’s a convenient story if you happen to oppose any government action against poverty. 

It’s hard to know where to begin to dismantle this nonsense. Shepard, a college graduate, started his “gruelling” experience about 10 rungs ahead of the vast majority of homeless people. (For one thing, as my wife pointed out, he’d probably seen a doctor and a dentist more recently than most homeless people. Paying for dental work is hard enough for college students.) He also started his experience tabula rasa — i.e., he didn’t have to overcome a mental illness, support a family, or overcome a drug addiction. He also had some idea of what he was going to do to pull himself out of poverty, because he wasn’t plunged into it, or born into it, he decided to do it. In short, he possessed exactly none of the things that most commonly cause people to be poor in the first place. No wonder it only took him 10 months. Slumming in order to write about the experience is one thing (Orwell did it, famously, in “Down and Out in Paris and London.”). Slumming in order to prove that poor people are lazy is despicable.

Of course, Pulp put it more succinctly back in 1995. If I could call Shepard and play him this song over the phone, I would:

Rent a flat above a shop

Cut your hair and get a job

Smoke some fags and play some pool

Pretend you never went to school

But still you’ll never get it right

’cause when you’re laid in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the wall

If you called your dad he could stop it all…

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do whatever common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And then dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.

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2 Responses to “Wal-Mart and the myth of the lazy poor.”

  1. Connor Mendenhall Says:

    “A project for the future could be a social history of the United States from my vantage point; if The Journal of a Working Boy meets with any success at the book stalls, I shall perhaps etch a likeness of our nation with my pen. Our nation demands the scrutiny of a completely disengaged observer like your Working Boy, and I already have in my files a rather formidable collection of notes and jottings that evaluate and lend a perspective to the contemporary scene.”

    Ehrenreich and Shepard tried 240 pages, Charles Platt tried 850 words. All three managed to write “Journal of a Working Boy, or, Up From Sloth”

  2. Evan Lisull Says:

    Any Pulp reference merits at least 12 cool points, and “Common People” should be required on the playlist of every Greek Life function.

    Worthy of consideration in this vein is the paper authored by one of the President’s current economic advisers: “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story.” On aggregate, Wal-Mart has actually been a boon to the poor; congenial companies are nice, but I’m sure anyone living in the lower-rungs will take the iciness and the lowest prices instead.

    Certainly, living off of a Wal-Mart salary in a dead-end town is no blast. But there are worst options.

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