Thanks to Tom Sullivan over at the Hullabaloo blog, I have a new way of seeing Walmart’s business practices. Because of the way the retail giant gets taxpayers to support its workforce, it can be described as practicing a “Tom Sawyer economy.” I have in mind, of course, the famous scene where Tom gets the other boys to whitewash his fence for him.
Sullivan quotes a Forbes article on how Walmart gets society to cover its costs:
Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.
Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state-level progressive groups, made this estimate using data from a 2013 study by Democratic Staff of the U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce.
“The study estimated the cost to Wisconsin’s taxpayers of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, which often force workers to rely on various public assistance programs,” reads the report, available in full here.
“It found that a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.”
Sullivan notes that Walmart has also externalized the cost of theft prevention. It has an out-of-control theft problem, but rather than hire more people to watch over its items, it relies on the police. As a result, police forces around Wamarts often find themselves pushed to the limits. Shannon Pettypiece of Bloomberg Business Week told NPR about her interviews with various police forces:
“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.”
Walmart says they’re trying to do things like put more employees at the door. They’ve been trying to invest in theft prevention technology, devices they can put on merchandise or more, you know, visible security monitors. The police complaint is that they’re not moving fast enough, and they’re not moving far enough.
And I talked to one retail analyst who thinks Walmart needs to add an extra quarter million part-time employees in its stores to really have the employee presence out on the floor that would deter theft. And for Walmart, that’s going to cost them billions of dollars to fix this problem like some people would like to see.
If this is a Tom Sawyer economy and Walmart is Tom, then we taxpayers are Ben Rogers and the other suckers. Ben is the first to see Tom at work and is astounded at what he sees:
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:
“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”
“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”
“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”
“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”
“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”
“I’ll give you all of it!”
Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.
Come to think of it, this captures how, time and again, many state and local governments give corporations large tax breaks to locate there. The companies devour the apple and pocket the goodies as we whitewash their fence–which is to say, construct infrastructure, provide services, and staff schools. They show little gratitude for these amenities, however, and depart as soon as they find a sweeter deal elsewhere. We, meanwhile, are left with weather-beaten boards and unemployed whitewashers.
Of course, we could force companies to pay their way and to return the tax monies if they up and leave. Guess which of our two political parties would like to see that happen.