Truth and Dare

When I was a kid, we used to spend lazy summer afternoons sitting around on somebody's porch amusing ourselves by eating and drinking all kinds of sticky soda, candy, and popsicles and by playing various kid games that required no equipment except imagination-- like Hide and Seek, Freeze Tag, Monkey in the Middle, and the one we called Truth, Dare, Consequences, Promise or Repeat.

When we played TDCPR, I was the kid who almost always chose Dare. When you chose Dare, the other kids would come up with some goofy or slightly risky action for you to take--nothing life threatening. Usually, it was something like walking up to a neighbor's house, ringing the doorbell and then making up some lame reason why-- leaving the neighbor thinking you were one strange little kid. Or it might be something like tasting mud, or climbing a tree (something I excelled at). I never went with Promise, because I don't like making promises I might not be able to keep.

When I felt like I needed a change of pace, I usually chose Truth. The kids would ask you to tell the truth about something, usually something embarassing--and that was not a problem for me.

Today I'm going to tell some truth.

It's commonly accepted as truth that WalMart is an evil exploitative corporation. That it doesn't provide health coverage to most of its workers, and that when it does, it's often too expensive and offers poor coverage. Another commonly accepted truth is that WalMart pays a lot of its workers hourly wages but doesn't guarantee them enough hours every week so these workers can earn a living wage. The real truth is, Walmart does what a lot of other companies, large and small do. It just does it best.

I worked for WalMart's closest competitor. The pay was average, comparable to what workers in other retail chains in that part of the country were paid. The benefits started out well. But soon after I was hired, this company changed its policy so that health coverage began six months after the start of employment, instead of the three months I had to wait. Health and dental insurance were provided on a three tier system. The more hours you averaged weekly, the more comprehensive was your coverage. Still, every year the premiums edged up a bit higher, as did the deductibles, and the co payments. But I didn't read much about all this in the newspapers, because all of the negative publicity was beamed at WalMart; and the truth is, that ain't fair.

The problem is bigger than even a retail goliath like WalMart. "Everything's relative," my uncle used to say. WalMart's and other chain's wages are low because housing and other essentials (like oil and gas) are too high. Its health coverage is inadequate for the same reason a lot of companies' health coverage is expensive and inadequate. Because health care is provided by insurance companies that are in business to make a profit. Take the profit motive out of health care and let the government take it over. Oh, but that would be (gasp) socialized medicine. Do Canada and Britain, Denmark and Japan look like they're in imminent danger of collapsing into communism?

As for the low wages, if everyone had access to safe, decent housing that cost them no more than 30% of their income, whatever that income happened to be, WalMart's wages wouldn't be so low and neither would Target's or Starbuck's or anyone's, for that matter. That's what section 8 used to do before the federal rent subsidy program was gutted by the trickle downers. This and other social stability programs were sacrificed presumably so that we could afford Halliburton's no bid government contract and other "essential" services.

As for the sins of WalMart: it was doing what every other chain was doing. It just did it better.
Faced with a choice between paying $4.49 for a bag of Columbian coffee at the supermarket, and paying $3.38 at super WalMart, the obvious choice for a low wage worker is--duh?

Do I spend 64 cents for a gallon of distilled water at WalMart, or 99 cents elsewhere? Would you pay $19 for a pair of Levi's jeans at WalMart, where you can check out your own purchases or go to a cashier--it's your choice--or would you prefer to pay $40 or more in a name brand jeans store with long lines and snooty sales "associates." If you said pay $40, congratulations: you have money to burn. I don't.

I miss WalMart, and their friendly door greeters, relatively short lines, and self checkout lanes. And that's the truth I dare to tell. For a low wage worker living in the South, Walmart isn't just the obvious choice; it's the only choice.

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