Life at Wal-Mart


Charles Platt working at Wal-Mart

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

As I begin my second week here as a guest blogger, I'm going to risk venturing into a couple of contentious political areas. My aim is not to provoke dissent; I simply feel that some stories are not being told.

The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world’s largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?

It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.

Getting in was not easy, as more than 100 applicants were competing for fewer than 10 job openings. Still, I made it through a very clever screening quiz, then through a series of three interviews, followed by two days of training. I felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company’s resources in this way, but I was certainly willing to do my part by working hard at the store, at least for a limited period.

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.

My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

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.

Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.

As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories—when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money. walmartwatch.com, for instance, is partnered with the Service Employees International Union; wakeupwalmart.com is copyright by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I'm guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.

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.

Similar factors result in someone such as Adam Shepard remaining relatively obscure.

If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable book Scratch 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.

Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

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  1. Yes, we know the problem with this county is that shiftless workers, lying libs and thieving union management have no appreciation for the fat of the land and all the well-meaning corp execs.

  2. Wal-mart gets low prices (partially) by exerting pressure on some (all?) of it’s suppliers through sheer size, I’d imagine that rubs many unions in the wrong way.

  3. quite interesting information from a realm not entered. What is more morally/ethically reprehensible: shackles of soft gold or coarse iron?
    My first instinct is that of human free will reduced by operant conditioning.

  4. I think you lucked out.

    I worked for Wal-Mart for a couple of years. In the Deli. At $9.60 an hour I was one of the highest paid non-management workers in the store (this was a Super Wal-Mart, BTW with groceries and such. Huge place.) with the only other highest paid folks working either in the Deli, or in TLE. The top paid deli worker pulled in $12.00/hr and had been there for several years.

    As it happens, I was injured on the job, thanks to the horrendously slippery floors. I don’t care if you have the best-soled shoes in the world, an inch-thick layer of grease will knock you on your butt.

    At first, it was fine, Wal-Mart of course paid work comp for all my medical expenses, and on top of that, every minute spent in the doc’s office was logged and I was paid for the time. I was put on altered duty. This means answering phones in the fitting room area. The doc ordered me there for six weeks and then a checkup from that point.

    After three weeks, management started hassling me about bumping up my doc’s appointment (which I did.) Doc said I could return to the deli but work no longer than a six hour shift. I was closer, so that meant coming in around 2pm and staying as late as 1am, though we were supposed to be let go at 11pm every day.

    Management would not compromise with the shift. I had to come in at 2 and work until everything was done, no matter what the doc said. Fine, I needed the damn job so I did as I was told. Couple weeks later, the injury was aggrivated and I was bleeding. All over the deli. Around food and equipment. Lots of blood. Literally leaving bloody footprints on the floor, through my shoe. I bandaged it up as well as I could, but it kept bleeding through.

    I informed management and was told by the store’s co-manager “What do you want me to do about it.” When I suggested maybe I shouldn’t be bleeding all over the food people were eating, and wouldn’t mind taking the phones for the rest of the day and seeing the doc the next. That wasn’t acceptable and I was told I could go into the ER to have the stitches fixed, but I would have to do it over my lunch, and if I could not be back before my lunch was over, I would be fired.

  5. I really like this post. I dislike major chains, but in all honesty they are often the best source of employment in many areas they are based in. So I feel if there were better options, people would jump at them. Heck, isn’t that what the free market is about?

    So nice work! But let’s hope this recession means that there will be some new options opening up for folks to make money in a more local way.

  6. Yes actually, I have heard of Adam Shephard. What you neglected to mention about this kid playing homeless for a year is that he has a college education, paid for by his parents.

    So yeah, the American dream is totally great if you come from a privileged background that enables you to come out of an institute of higher education without debt. But I think we all knew that already…?

  7. So, I assume you tried to rent a place to live? Use only your wages to get a sec deposit/rent, or buy a car, or instead commute by public transit in the suburbs? I assume you ate only what you could afford after deducting rent, transportation and sundry expenses like medications not covered by insurance, or pay the large deductible required by the HMO?

    Ehrenreich did most of those things, which were the point of her book, Nicked and Dimed. She did not represent that rampant evil personified by Wal-Mart and other employers.

    Try reading the book. And Bushism is over.

  8. As an entity of singular success I find Walmart and what it does and stands for exceedingly interesting.

    I am critical of some I learned of the business and in admiration of other aspects. I’ll be honest in that I might not have been as critical a reader of Nickel and Dimed as you were, and found your interest and take enlightening.

    But forgive me if I have a few questions about your own motivation for your experience and this blog.

    To be honest your last sentence:

    “Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.”

    Threw up a number of red flags that your unbiased stance that you take in vetting Barbara Ehrenreich’s book is as neutral as you would have us believe. I see you already have an opinion of what popular news is, and Ehrenreich herself as a “professional handwringer”

    I’m also interested in how long you spent as an employee at Walmart? A couple days, weeks, maybe a month? I wonder if the amount of time you spent was long enough to really know the wrinkles and warts of any employer or workplace.

    And did you try to live only on what you earned? Which I took as a major point of the book.

    Sincerely,

    Jay Acker

  9. So, to the folks dissenting to the notion that Wal-Mart might not be so bad– where exactly is a really good, high-paying entry-level job in retail to be found?

  10. I’m curious if you did what #8 suggested.

    I’m also curious if you checked up on the 90 people that didn’t get a job. Although I’m currently fine financially, my problem has never been my willingness to work, but the availability of work.

    Last summer in Phoenix even fast food wasn’t hiring. One manager at Chik-Fil-A told me that he’d taken on people from a store that went out of business, and actually had more employees than he should have – he was struggling to keep them all paid. He had no way to hire me, even though he wanted to.

    What precisely does one do when they can’t get minimum wage, and when even day labor isn’t hiring?

    As for demonizing Wal-Mart, I have a feeling there’s a bit too much of that going around. When they came to Tawas, Michigan, the local grocery store Carter’s went out of business. Carter’s charged ridiculously high prices for wilted produce and crappy meat because they were the only supermarket in town. Wal-Mart charges low prices for adequate food, and their selection is much better. My mother once spent hours driving all over Tawas trying to buy a pie pan. Once Wal-Mart arrived, a pie pan was no concern.

    Wal-Mart does pave over certain enterprises, but it’s not all puppies and kittens that get mowed under.

  11. My family is made up of union tradespeople (carpenters, electricians and painters) and I’m first generation in this country and to go to college.

    Mr Platt, you write about Unions being “obsessed” with Wal-Mart and speculate that this is connected to the wealth in union dues that would come in if Wal-Mart allowed employees to organize. But do you know how much of that money goes back into health care, extended benefits (health and life) and other programs?

    I’m not naive, just as the Wal-Mart is not all evil, unionized labor is far from perfect by any metric. But Union investments helped my mother and father buy a home, paid for my father’s health care and helped put me through school. Every day millions of people in this country have some sense of security in their lives because of unionized labor, and the rest of us enjoy health and safety regulations because of generations of union protests and job actions.

    I think you make an interesting point about Wal-Mart. Maybe for your next experiment pull some time at a union hall and see just how huge a role organized labor plays in many people’s lives. And how far removed it is from an easy summation.

  12. There’s a few major problems with huge chains that this ignores.

    I’ve worked for quite a few Mom and Pop stores, and for a couple big chains. Both paid about the same and were pleasant places to work.

    When I worked for small businesses, I learned how they were run, from the ordering to the advertising. The owners were present and friendly.

    I’m now starting my own small business, based largely on what I learned from working at a similar one.

    At walmart, the low paid workers are very distant from the decision processes that make the place run, and even if they were closer, Walmart does these things in mega huge ways that require teams of lawyers, jets streaming to Chinese factories and lots of money. The lessons wouldn’t apply to a small business, and small businesses doing anything similar with a similar demographic would have a very hard time competing with Walmart.

    The benefits of working for a small company go beyond the working conditions and pay. Small stores offer an incredibly valuable education that doesn’t come from a video in the back room.

  13. Your experience seems to have been very insightful. Still I would wonder about whether or not there have been drastic changes at WalMart over the years. The WalMart “issue” if you will was very big news some time ago, more than enough time for a serious company to react and make some legitimate changes to their organization and their corporate culture.

    I’d be very interested to learn about when those “courses” for store policy etc. became available. Of course if it did end up being the case that the company did a huge about-face from the grim picture Barbara painted, to the one you’ve painted, it would not be a “gotcha” moment, but rather a “successful adjustment to criticism” moment.

    -Just a few thoughts.

  14. #9 makes a good point too – I worked in a grocery store for Christmas break, so I know how it feels to push myself against a stack of carts in the freezing cold. I remember knowing all the ads on the in-store radio and when they would repeat.

    But I was just making extra spending money for college – my parents paid my tuition and rent for the dorm.

    I have friends now where she’s unemployed and he works as a cashier at a grocery store. I know what he feels when he brings in those carts, but I don’t pretend for one second to know the truth of the life they live as they try and make rent each month.

  15. If Mr. Platt had been non-white would he have been hired; treated the same way? Would Adam Sheperd have succeeded if he were non-white? Of course we can’t know but how do we account for the statistics that show distribution of wealth being overwhelmingly white owned?

  16. “Ehrenreich did most of those things, which were the point of her book”

    Ehrenreich insisted on various niceties which were simply not practical, and she then complained about this. In particular, she insisted on living in a place of her own, paying the rent all herself.

    The typical newly hired Wal-Mart worker would try to work out an apartment-share arrangement, or would have a spouse contributing to rent. It’s just commonsense. You minimize your expenses while doing whatever you have to do (such as taking evening classes toward a degree) so that you don’t have to work at Wal-Mart forever. Unless you want to be promoted into management, in which case you minimize your expenses while racking up as many merit points as you can for 6 to 12 months.

    When I immigrated to the USA, decades ago, and had to take a job as a bicycle messenger in New York City, the first thing I did was find a room to rent for minimal expense in someone else’s apartment. I then slept on a piece of foam on the floor. When you start with next-to-nothing, you do what you have to do. But, Barbara Ehrenreich seemed to feel that she shouldn’t have to.

    Anyone who regards Wal-Mart as “rampant evil” surely cannot have worked there; and should also explain what it would have to do to become less evil. Increase its wages to uncompetitive levels, so that it can be put out of business by more competitive rivals? Or should we have legislation to set much higher minimum wages in ALL companies, thus inducing price inflation?

    Environmental activists rightly abhor simplistic tampering with the environment, because it is a delicate and complex system; yet many people feel quite happy about crude economic intervention, even though a free-market economy is just as complex, interrelated, and easily damaged as an ecology.

  17. oh, as to union “obsession”, isn’t Walmart THE biggest employer? A natural “target” so to speak for the normal function of trade unionism? Would not unions be remiss in their duty to NOT go after Walmart? Further, apart from out-competing small enterprises, is a it a good idea to have your biggest source of daily consumer goods deal almost exclusively with imports over domestic manufacture? The later point must consider the reality of a global economy, but should there be some limits beyond pure profit?

  18. This sounds great, it’s really important that there is a dialogue on these types of social issues, and this type of investigative/experiential reporting helps people to understand the issues at hand.
    It’s important to remember however, that just as Ehrenreich’s single experience can not be expected to represent some sort of absolute benchmark for low wage earners, neither does yours. I think a much more compelling piece of evidence for what we should think about WalMart are the legal statement of facts from cases like Betty Dukes’ sexual discrimination class action suit, and the numerous unpaid wage lawsuits that have been recently settled or judged against WalMart (to many to list here).
    Do you think that perhaps your WalMart experience could have been influenced by these court cases? Or perhaps you just ended up at a store (and I’m sure there are quite a few like this) where the management are compassionate and respectful people. I think it’s safe to say that your experiences at Walmart as an educated white male are likely going to be quite different from many other Walmart employees (I’m not saying that institutionalized racism is endemic at WalMart, but if you don’t think things like CAGEs — culture, age, gender and education — don’t influence how employees get treated, you are simply not looking, or ignorant, or both).
    In short, while I appreciate what you are trying to do, your lack of context or critical reflection on the experience shows you to be just as much of a professional handwringer with a particular axe to grind.
    KcM

  19. I missed the point of why a professional writer would take this gig at walmart if he wasn’t hoping to get a book out of it.

    Are we to assume the product of this experiment was to write about it on Boing Boing?

    Or were you just looking for work?

  20. “If Mr. Platt had been non-white would he have been hired; treated the same way? Would Adam Sheperd have succeeded if he were non-white? Of course we can’t know but how do we account for the statistics that show distribution of wealth being overwhelmingly white owned?”

    Don’t know about that, but they hired me when I was 57 years old. Not guilty of age discrimination, anyway.

    The initial hiring quiz comes back to five basic themes. They want employees who show up on time, won’t steal, aren’t substance abusers, will accept a chain of command, and are not accident prone. That’s it. I think the company is far too scared of bad press at this point to discriminate by race.

    And getting back to low wages, when you have more than 100 people competing for fewer than 10 jobs where the only pre-requisite is the ability to read, write, and do simple math, this suggests a) there is no incentive to raise wages and b) the nation’s educational system may have some blame here.

  21. I think the problem most of the Wal*Mart detractors are missing is there are very few options that can match what Wal*Mart offers even if they are rejected for a job.

    In the 1980s my first job was in food service getting minimum wage at 15 and hilariously being fired for never learning how to mop the floor right. But I learned my lesson, went onto another job, saved up, went on to the next job saved up and so on.

    Flash forward to now. Food service jobs pay nothing in comparison to what I got then. And the only people who can truly “afford” to work for such wages are immigrant laborers who are really willing to live in pretty bad conditions. And heck, if I were 15 it still would be questionable what I would get from working a job like that since after taxes I would make so little it would be hard to understand why I am killing myself.

    Detractors, if you really want Wal*Mart gone, figure out ways to support and generate local economies. Because once that happens, the leverage places like Wal*Mart has disappears. But that’s a pipe dream nowadays since so many opportunities are now gone in the U.S. and the dream of most small business owners isn’t the same.

    It’s all screwed up.

  22. “Environmental activists rightly abhor simplistic tampering with the environment, because it is a delicate and complex system; yet many people feel quite happy about crude economic intervention, even though a free-market economy is just as complex, interrelated, and easily damaged as an ecology.”

    isn’t the quality of life of the people IN the economy the POINT of the economy? The labor component is a delicate and complex part of the system too. Simple corporate growth for growth’s sake as the ultimate and only good has already proven nonviable.

  23. Is the reference to “scratch beginnings” a joke?

    From the website: “Adam Shepard graduated in 2006 with a degree in Business Management and Spanish.” and some other nifty stuff.

    While I certainly believe that he did work hard, that’s not “starting from scratch”. Not – at – all.

  24. Greetings

    I’m living well in retirement because my building trades union negotiated wages and benefits from decent employers who were not afraid to cede power and money to an entity that suppied skilled labor that they could send out to their customers. Done right there is a synergy in the exchange between equals

    Sadly Walmart is not willing to share their wealth with those who make it possible

    Sadder still is the automatic dismissal of the union as a way for the worker to gain power making the trade of labor for money more equitable for all concerned

  25. I’m guessing Wired let him go for being either slow or sloppy.

    The events in “Nickel and Dimed” were a decade ago and the article and book brought a great deal of attention to Walmart’s treatment of workers back in 1999. But Kudos Mr. Platt, your timely expose of that a 10 year old book didn’t hold true to your experiences last week is truly insightful.

    You may also be surprised to know a black man is now president, global warming is an accepted fact and Saddam Hussein is no longer the ruler of Iraq.

    What Mr. Platt fails to mention is that while things are much better these days at the local Walmart, it is in large part due to the muckraking efforts of Walmart-Watch and WakeUpWalmart and the many journalistic exposés of the last decade.

    He glosses over the numerous cases, like locking cleaning crews in overnight, exploiting illegal workers, and many others while dismissing Walmart’s negative image as the work of a few union-sponsored hand-wringers.

    That kind of sloppy, slanted background is why I wasn’t left wondering how he went “…from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position…”

  26. “isn’t the quality of life of the people IN the economy the POINT of the economy?”

    Only if the people in the economy want it to be, and are willing to direct their efforts toward making it so. Economic interactions are how you (try to) get what you want.

  27. Charles, this is a fascinating post and I appreciate your curiosity and honest reporting in undertaking this experiment. I also thought Ehrenreich was unrealistic in trying to live on her own on an entry-level salary. Who does that? But I was intrigued to learn that every interactive course you took on company time earned you an incremental increase in your hourly wage. That’s a smart and fair policy.

  28. The question about my own preconceived agenda is very reasonable.

    Initially I read the Ehrenreich book and thought, “This can’t be the whole story. Or can it?” I was suspicious because, as a journalist, I recognize journalistic techniques that slant a story. But still, I wasn’t sure. If I had been sure, I wouldn’t have bothered to take the job. I was certainly trying to be relatively open minded.

    By the end of my experience, I felt angry and betrayed by the Ehrenreich book. Maybe I happened to hit a particularly well-managed Wal-Mart branch, but still, she LEFT OUT so many aspects of corporate policy that would have diluted her diatribe. This is not honest journalism.

    So, at the beginning, I was willing to be persuaded that she was at least half right. But by the end of my experience I was ready to use pejorative terms such as “professional handwringer” because, frankly, I felt betrayed by her book.

  29. It sounds like your one Walmart employee experience was reasonable. I think your experiment is reasonable, but I wonder: did you collect enough data?

    If not, you may have gone public with the experiment too soon; now you personally can’t go back to collect more data.

    Working for one supervisor at one Walmart may not be enough.

  30. “the nation’s educational system may have some blame here.”

    If anything, the system works too well. The vast majority of American work requires what you describe – utterly rudimentary skills. We have wayyy more capable, skilled people than we have any jobs for. My experience in offices was me asking to help out in ways that would save them money and them saying ‘Actually, we just want you to pull staples out of paper all day.’

    If there’s anyone that’s useless in the American workforce, it’s the educated man or woman.

    They’re direly needed, of course, but damned if anyone’ll pay you to be one.

  31. “Only if the people in the economy want it to be,”

    big people or little people?

    anyway, good night for now

  32. @Takuan

    “My first instinct is that of human free will reduced by operant conditioning.”

    This interests me also.

    Mr Platt mentions the freedom staff have in the detailed running of the store he worked at;

    “One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.”

    Is there an incentive for this level of decision making by “sales-floor level” employees?

  33. @34- Where would the big people at Wal-Mart be without the little people doing their shopping at Wal-Mart?

  34. I appreciate that union representation has secured higher wages for employees in some industries. But this of course gives these employees greater purchasing power, potentially driving up prices, and thus putting nonunionized workers at a disadvantage, since they too have to pay those prices. Therefore I see unions as the enemies of the non-unionized working poor.

    No doubt union advocates would say that the answer is for all industries to be unionized. Unfortunately this merely increases wages universally without increasing productivity. Some companies may be able to afford it; others will suffer in a global economy. As at GM.

    I continue to believe that the primary problem is lack of appropriate education.

  35. #31: But what of the earlier questions?

    How long did you work there? A week, a month?

    Did you try and live off of your wages and nothing else, and support your family on them?

    What of the ten years since Ehrenreich’s book came out? You can’t just go to Chicago today and declare that The Jungle was rubbish and handwringing. You’re writing about a totally different time.

  36. The typical newly hired Wal-Mart worker would try to work out an apartment-share arrangement, or would have a spouse contributing to rent. It’s just commonsense.

    Really? I thought the typical newly hired Wal-Mart employee is a single or divorced mom supporting her kids or old people who don’t get enough retirement money to survive on it.

  37. “Working for one supervisor at one Walmart may not be enough.”

    Agreed. I may have an unrepresentative sample. But I was too old, too impatient, and too lazy to sustain my Wal-Mart employee status while moving myself from one location to another around the US. That would be been extremely challenging.

    I did however gather stories from other employees who had worked for other Wal-Marts and still wanted to go on working at Wal-Mart. That, and the almost desperate interest shown by some job applicants (whose interviews I overheard while I was going through mine) forced me to conclude that the company is probably better than average in its relationship with most of its employees.

  38. That’s a refreshingly even handed assessment of working at Walmart.

    “What is more morally/ethically reprehensible: shackles of soft gold or coarse iron?”

    By the analogy you seem to be making anyone who is not a self employed entrepreneur is wearing shackles of one sort or another. There are very few individual skilled labor enterprises (and virtually none for people that possess only “people skills”) that do not require an apprenticeship that will provide the potential for prosperous long term self employment. If working in a place like Walmart constitures shackles of gold then the apprenticeship to most master tradesmen would tend for more to the rigidity of iron. Easy and profitable are mutually exclusive in an entry level position. You don’t have to like it but it’s the way the world has always worked. Ask any subsistance farmer.

    “second reaction: how can you raise a family on that money in a company town?”

    You probably can’t. Starting a family is a decision that from a financial perspective should be delayed until one has a sizeable nest egg. Gratification can be delayed despite to protestation of young hormones otherwise. Most don’t wait and that’s their right but it doesn’t give them any justification to complain that entry level employment doesn’t cover the cost of maintaining a single family private dwelling with their one true love an a brood of entitled young ones. No legislation or labor union will ever prevent people from procreating themselves into poverty. Study hard, avoid unhealthy vices, keep your willy in your trousers or seated with a dime between your knees as the case may be and save up your money to start a family. Poor planning does not obligate Walmart to provide mitigation for bad decisions.

  39. I made the mistake of trying to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s follow-up to “Nickel and Dimed”: “Bait and Switch”. It was worthless.

    If you go into a job hunt these days with a “world owes me” attitude, you are going to karmically get back what you put into your job hunt: absolute dick.

    It was her premise that someone with a college degree is essentially ENTITLED to a white collar job making at least $50K/yr. She forgot to mention that value system died sometime in the 1970s, well ahead of her book. This nasty attitude and assumption affected everything she did. I scanned the remaining chapters and saw a slow-motion train wreck of a job search.

    While I’m not wild about Walmart, I’m glad someone is pointing out that Ms. Ehrenreich is not the absolute authority on working for a discount chain.

    If she really wants to get her readers’ panties in a wad with moral outrage, she should write a book on age discrimination during this recession. That would be a doozy, and a big seller among the baby boomers.

  40. Hey, great article – we should definitely get out of the habit of making others (including entire businesses) into a caricature.

    I’m still opposed to globalization (the big “W” being the poster child of said movement), but I’ve never seen Wal-Mart as an unfriendly place.

  41. As far as Adam Shepard and “Scratch Beginnings” are concerned, if he is obscure (I for one have heard too much about him) he is deservedly so. There is nothing remarkable about a regular person taking up free lodging meant for those without the life skills to succeed in society, and then finding a regular job and attaining a regular lifestyle. Nothing at all. If his example serves as an example of Mr. Platt’s point, perhaps Mr. Platt isn’t saying very much.

    As to the incremental wage increase for successfully completing Wal-Mart training courses, Mr. Platt observes that Barbara Ehrenreich “somehow” neglects to mention this in her book even as he somehow forgets how much this increase is exactly. I’d be curious to know how much this was per course.

    And as long as Mr. Platt is considering the supposed answer to the commonplace low wages offered in the entry-level retail industry, he might as well take a moment to consider the role of chains like Wal-Mart in establishing the precedent for such poorly paying jobs, making such wages a competitive necessity.

  42. Every so often, the TV in the UK does a version of this sort of exercise, most notably in the 1980s when Granada’s World In Action sent Matthew Parris to live on the dole for a week. Tellingly, Parris got into trouble with his party – Thatcher was livid that attention was being drawn to how difficult it was surviving on nothing.

    The key aspect of this article? That shopfloor staff are central to WalMart’s success, and yet they receive the lowest wages that they can be paid.

    You might like to compare with Waitrose in the UK, where shopfloor staff are central to the company’s success, and as a result own a slice of the company and share in its success.

  43. I think you’re dodging a few questions, Mr Platt.

    Personally, I worked for Wal-Mart’s affiliate in the UK. I had to sign a waiver of my basic human rights under the ECHR/ Human Rights Act 1998 to be employed there, and looking back now that I’m out of my teens, it’s a wonder I wasn’t seriously injured on that job. They had us doing some truly insane things.

  44. “Is there an incentive for this level of decision making by “sales-floor level” employees?”

    I spoke to a guy who took the initiative to order, I think, 100 tentlike carports during his first month on the job, just because he noticed that a sample of four of the things had sold out within a day, and several people then came in asking for them as a result of word-of-mouth.

    His gamble was successful. As a result he was invited to some kind of annual Wal-Mart gathering at company HQ, he met the CEO, and of course was promoted. That’s a very unusual story but, yes, I’d say there’s an incentive!

    The biggest sin at Wal-Mart is not to take initiative. It is to offend a customer. We were warned quite severely that each average Wal-Mart customer is expected to spend, as I recall, about $200,000 during the rest of their lives. If you terminally alienate one customer, you may have just lost the store almost a quarter-million dollars. The second-biggest sin might be to hurt yourself, since your reimbursed medical expenses will reduce the annual bonus for your coworkers.

    Oddly enough, Wal-Mart reminded me of startups that I visited in Silicon Valley during the 1990s. Same informality, same devolution of responsibility to low levels, same gung-ho optimism, young-aged work force, willingness to innovate, emphasis on growth, and a sense of very smart management behind the scenes. But of course the work is MUCH more boring!

  45. If I remember correctly, when Shepard went on his “experience”, while he did leave behind his money and official credentials, still kept the following things:

    – Perfect health
    – Education
    – Accent and social skills that allowed him to show his higher social status and look competent and non-threatening
    – Skin color
    – (And if I remember, an emergency credit card in his back pocket)

    He also had no:
    – Substance addictions
    – Family members to support

    So from a starting position as a healthy, well-educated man with no health or mental problems, no dependents, and the reassurance he could walk out anytime, he was able to build himself a life? I can believe that.

    Unfortunately, the actually poor tend not to be in such a good position – which is why they are poor.

    I suffered from depression in the past, and having nothing to do really aggravates this depression. Similarly, I’ve had several friends lose all self-confidence and slide into depression having spent a few months looking for a job. The claim that “working hard” is all you need to do doesn’t work if you’re too busy being in a pit of despair.

    People like Shepard (and the OP, I’m afraid) make me angry. Dipping your healthy, sane, safety-netted self into the pool of “pretend poverty” and then using it as “proof” that the lot of the poor is really their own fault.

    Yes, absolutely, if everyone was healthy and mentally stable and equipped with a safety net, everyone but the truly lazy would have a job and a steady life. But people aren’t, which is why we need schools, social programs, social security and medical care for everyone. At least let people start off at the same point before berating them for being lazy.

  46. @Zarkonnen– But you see the problem here: as you’re phrasing it, the system isn’t flawed. The people who fail at it are.

  47. I’d agree with the people who point out that Nickel and Dimed came out ten years ago and was probably a good part of the reason your experience was more pleasant than hers. I’d also add that Wal-Mart has one of the worst records of any American corporation for gender equality in the workplace; the majority of its employees are women, but the vast majority of its management positions are filled by men.

    I’ve only had two friends that worked for Wal-Mart, but both tell me it was horrible. One was working there just last year. He had just gotten married and was struggling financially. His wife was working two jobs, and he was working at Wal-Mart. They continually gave him 39.5 hours of work per week so that he couldn’t receive health care benefits, though he was working full time (or just a half-hour shy of it).

  48. #39: sssh, you’re not allowed to argue with ‘common sense’

    as to the statement ‘…I see unions as the enemies of the non-unionized working poor.’, it is such right-libertarian twaddle. It is the exploitative policies of the companies with non-union workers that are the enemy of unions and the non-unionized workers. If those non-unionized workers were unionized, they would be able to exert the power they hold as members of the producing class to benefit themselves and all members of their class.

    Instead of arguing against unions because any gains they make would be undermined by other countries without unions, you should be arguing for stronger pro-union laws in those countries and protesting companies that deal with anti-union countries.

  49. #44: It’s certainly a realistic situation. So is living with a spouse that also works minimum wage. Or perhaps working two minimum wage jobs to support a non-working spouse and children while also receiving welfare and food stamps. Living in an old house with three roommates and splitting the bills, perhaps. All realistic.

    And how long he worked there would drastically affect his estimation of things. I’d imagine Wired keeps him nicely health insured. If he needed surgery for some reason (or his family did), the bills are likely covered. On the other hand, even if Wal-Mart’s insurance were something like ‘We cover 80%’ or ‘We cover everything but the first $5k,’ most minimum wage workers would be utterly crippled by such bills.

    As our failing economy has shown us, it takes a fair while of battering to break a good system. Bush spent eight solid years destroying our economy, and we’re really only feeling it now. A week, a month, working minimum wage is tourism, and tourism with no consequences. Mr. Platt’s health, mood, and living standards were at no risk because he is well protected by 401k’s, stock portfolios, and quite likely years of having doctors he knows by name. As far as ‘realistic’ situations go, those don’t rank particularly high for most people.

    And let’s not forget that promotion isn’t nearly as automatic and quick as he describes. My cashier friend has worked at his store for two years and is just now getting a raise to get him over $9 an hour, and he’s no slouch.

  50. Mister Platt, I’m not an anti-corporate “hater” by any stretch, but after reading through the comments here it is clear that you’re avoiding answering some questions.

    It’s clear you’re avoiding the question of how long you actually worked at the store.

    It is also clear that you’re avoiding answering the question of whether or not you tried to “live” off your earnings at the store.

    I shop at wal-mart from time to time and the employees usually seem happy to be there, more so than other retail stores. However, I don’t think your experience there should be taken with much weight unless you worked there for at least a month, covering all your monthly expenses with the wages you earned there.

    Unless you did that, your experience comes off as mere play-acting. Most jobs I’ve worked at have a pleasant “honeymoon” period when you first join and everyone is trying to make a good impression and all the tasks are still novel and interesting. It sounds as if you were still well within this period.

  51. Of course, this piece drips with intellectual dishonesty — as Zarkonnen and others have pointed out, the writer rigged the game, played it temporarily, and summarily declared himself the winner. This sort of self-centered delusion is temporarily acceptable in teenage boys who have read Rand for the first and fallen in love with the puerile concepts expounded therein; but in an adult it’s repulsive.

  52. @Cicada

    Everyone is flawed, but some more than others. What’s possible or not largely depends on people’s minds, not their physical circumstances, so what’s easy for one person is very hard for another. Society has to account for this difference, or fail.

    Shepard’s and Platt’s agenda seems to be for a society that accounts for their own flaws or level of flawedness, but not for others’. And their argument is: “people are supposed to be this flawed but no more, beyond this, it’s their fault”.

  53. #53: Yes, it is surprising that our “investigative journalist” hasn’t answered such simple questions.

    And the ‘honeymoon’ is very real – I worked for a horribly exploitive company for six months but didn’t realize it for the first 60 days. If you’d asked me a week in what I thought of the place, I’d have gushed praises. Now I think they’re one of the most corrupt enterprises in existence.

  54. #56: It’s not that it’s rigging the game, it’s when someone that has had no major hardships goes up to someone that has and says “This is all your fault. If only you’d tried harder!”

    Even if that is true, what are they supposed to do about it, exactly? They can’t just kill their kids because it would have been a better idea not to have had them. Dump them off on somebody else? Who? How is that person going to care for them?

  55. @55 Zarkonnen- Society does account for this difference. Economic society is mainly geared toward getting the job done, and by and large rewards those who do. Sometimes the job may not turn out to be such a good idea (Hello, mortgage fallout) but efficacy brings reward and lack of efficacy doesn’t.
    You’d seem to suggest that someone who can perform at a higher level of efficiency and productivity due to sounder mind should be at no advantage over someone who can’t. Am I right in this?

  56. About the social experiment that Shepard did: all that it proves is that mindset keeps you in the situation you are in; not that someone in the situation that he put himself in could do that.At least not certainly without a well planned paradigm shift.

  57. Free Market?

    Here in Texas, the state buys Walmart’s warehouses and then rents them back to Walmart. Effectively taking the property off the local property tax roll.

    Wal-Mart’s 4,000,000-square-foot bulk storage facility in Baytown,TX was bought by the General Land Office and is rented back to Wal-Mart. Over the next 30 years, the GLO will get about 3% apr on the purchase of the 100 million dollar
    warehouse. Wal-Mart made this backroom deal in 2005 when interest rates were much higher than they are today.

    In the meantime, the property is exempt from all county property taxes. No money for the hospital district, the schools, the roads – nothing.

  58. @58- For starters, it is possible to fail at life. I.e, to make so many mistakes that you cannot, within the lifespan left to you, recover. This may be fixable, but it’s probably damned difficult to fix.

    Comparing the two styles of story– “Hooray for the victory of hard work and enterprise” versus “Woe is life and circumstance” is probably a really, really good thing to do, though. Stop saying to kids “Drugs are bad” “Sex before marriage is bad” and such as though they were somehow intrinsically awful things and start pointing out instead that they stand a good chance of costing you a hell of a lot of money over your life.

  59. You say you “felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company’s resources” but apparently didn’t mind taking a job from one of those many other applicants, who likely needed it far more than you did.

    You apparently began your investigation much more concerned with Walmart’s welfare than the employees’; perhaps you had a “preconceived agenda might have biased [your] reporting.”

  60. As for Adam Shephard…my guess is that a tall good-looking guy who got his degree in Business Management on an athletic scholarship wouldn’t have a hard time pulling himself out of his fake “rut.”

    “Attending Merrimack College in North Andover, MA on a basketball scholarship, Adam Shepard graduated in 2006 with a degree in Business Management and Spanish. Serving as a Resident Advisor during his upperclassmen years, he began to take particular interest in the social issues of our nation. Shortly after graduation – with almost literally $25 to his name – Shepard departed his home state for Charleston, SC, embarking on the journey that has now become Scratch Beginnings.”

  61. I can’t believe that after a year like we’ve just had there are still people who are arguing for the efficiency of the free market. Actually I can believe that, I can’t believe they’re writing for BoingBoing using shoddy anecdotal arguments.

  62. Mr. Platt has continued to ignore a very simple question; since the events in Nickel and Dimed took place ten years ago, might not her reporting as well as the efforts of unions to counteract bad corporate behavior be responsible for the discrepancy between her reporting and current status on the ground? To dismiss an intervening DECADE without even responding to the question is the height of selective reporting.

  63. I feel for the 99 people who were trying to get the job so they could feed their children. Unless there’s more to it, it seems to me that Mr. Platt’s experiment, done out of privileged curiosity and not out of a desire to help others, is very selfish indeed.

  64. I’m entertained by the earnest and considered opinions of so many people who obviously have absolutely no freaking idea what it’s like to be long-term poor and unemployed.

  65. Two points:

    1. As others have mentioned, you haven’t told us if you actually tried to live off the pay you made. Did you keep whatever healthcare you had before you started working for them? Did you already have an ample savings account? Dependants to support? Very young dependants that you couldn’t find a babysitter for? I’m not sure you adequately tested many of the circumstances common to Wal-mart employees.

    2. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but you’re a white male, presumably educated. You haven’t mentioned how your health is, but in view of your silence on the topic, I’ll guess that it’s pretty normal, no chronic illnesses or etc. I did phone intake/gave legal advice to a number of current and former Wal-mart employees around the country. I heard stories from an Asian mom in the Southwest who got treated like a Latina by her white managers and got treated horribly by her Latina co-workers because she was Asian; from a Latino in Texas who had a chronic knee and back injury but needed to work at non-standing duty but his managers refused to give him such shifts or just refused to schedule him; a female senior citizen who got fired for an indeterminate reason that the client attributed to age; three to five different people who were fired or permanently unscheduled for a variety of disability related concerns . . .

    So yes, just anecdotes I’m sure some people will retort to this with, but I think that it points to a larger truth, which is that if you’re reasonably well educated, a native English-speaker, white, able-bodied and male at a Wal-mart, you’ll be just fine, aside from getting paid piss-poor. But if for whatever reason, you deviate outside the norm of what Wal-mart wants in its employees, you’re treated pretty crappily and then fired, often on pretext.

    The free exercise of enterprise has a right to go only where it does not impinge on the rights of its employees. And Wal-mart, in many and varied ways, manifestly does offend the rights of many of its employees. Although not all, as Charles as so kindly illuminated for us.

  66. Charles, thanks for the heads-up about Scratch Beginnings. Gonna have to check that one out.

    And I, too, feel that Wal-Mart gets a worse image than it deserves:

    For one thing; Sure, they do deserve to be criticized to the extent that they break labor laws. But when they DON’T break labor laws (which is most of the time) it is the LAWS that should be criticized for allowing crappy employer-employee contracts. Unless, that is, people think a corporation should do things out of the goodness of its heart, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Corporations are playing a game where a big part of winning is optimizing for a given set of rules. Don’t like what Wal-Mart is doing? Get the rules changed! Laws represent (among other things) society’s moral expectations of good behavior, for people and for companies, and companies will do anything to make money until society realizes that doing it is evil and puts a stop to it. (Importing from Chinese sweatshops is arguably even more evil than paying American minimum wage with no benefits and no unionizing). Like Darwinian evolution, one reason why the free market is good at finding efficiency is that it’s amoral, and so we must restrict its power if we care about morality. As I see it, the role of anti-WalMart activists is getting people to care about morality enough to actually trigger the mechanisms that get the rules changed, or so that people “vote with their wallets” thus adding morality as one of the parameters the market optimizes for.

    And for another thing; Wal-Mart seems to be what most people want. Unless (or until) the anti-WalMart people can convince everyone else that WalMart does not deserve people’s business, people will keep shopping there. Of course, what we want as consumers/investors is often different from what we want as citizens (Has Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism been reviewed on BoingBoing? If not, it should be). But the bottom line is, Wal-Mart simply reflects what people want. If people REALLY wanted mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, then people would pay the associated higher prices, and those shops would still be around. It’s like air travel: If people REALLY wanted comfort and good service and reliability, then people would pay the associated higher prices, but as we can see, people do not find those things worth the higher cost, and opt for the cheapest ticket. It’s not the airlines’ fault that they give people what they want. Same for Wal-Mart.

    [/rant]

    PS: When you wrote “Similar factors result in someone such as Adam Shepard remaining relatively obscure”, my reaction was “Ooh, ooh, I know who that is. He was the first American in space! Oh, no wait…”.

    PPS: here’s another interesting data point about how Wal-Mart gets those low prices. Interesting reading: http://slashdot.org/articles/06/03/28/2235246.shtml

    PPPS: This comment is probably the least liberal thing I’ve written in the past couple months. I guess the Obama campaign was putting something in the water, and it has run out ;)

  67. A lot of people complain about the low hourly wage, and rumble things like “how are you meant to feed a family on that” etc etc.

    What planet are you on?

    If you can’t survive on the money you make, then (wait for it…) get a better paying job.

    Simple.

    Can’t get a better paying job becuase:
    (a) thats the best in your area: then MOVE elsewhere
    (b) you don’t have necessary skills/education: then learn/go to school/better-yourself and get another job

    Yeah, Walmart certainly has its share of faults. I haven’t worked at a company that doesn’t.

    You don’t have to work at Walmart if you don’t want too.

  68. Mr Platt makes three obviously false assumptions in the OP:

    1) That Wal-Mart’s treatment of its employees is entirely down to the cuddly, affectionate nature of its management, and nothing to do with the ongoing efforts of unions and of whistleblowers like Ehrenreich.

    2) That a few Horatio Alger-style anecdotes about success somehow refute the huge weight of evidence about structural disadvantage and injustice.

    3) That everyone is like him – white, male, educated, mentally and physically healthy – or could become so if only they tried hard enough.

    I expect this kind of ignorance, fantasy, and other-blindness in (some of) the teenagers I teach, but from a senior journalist, it’s just embarrassing. People’s lives are deeply shaped by social structure and by bad luck over which they have no control, and for which they are therefore not to blame. The attempt to shift the responsibility for poverty onto the poor isn’t just morally ugly – although it is that – it requires an astonishing level of self-deception. Wake up, Mr Platt.

  69. Is it beat up on poor people day here at Boing Boing?

    First post : Makes available a tradition (dumpster-diving) that some actual poor folks use to get by. Suggests monetizing it – white guy, middle or upper class.

    Second Post : Wal-Mart isn’t bad. As an able, intelligent white guy with no bills to pay and minimal responsibilities, I found it fine during my brief stay…

    In the side-columns : “lets mess with consumer electronics and play video games”.

  70. i was pleasantly surprised at the author’s experience at Walmart, taking the post at face value.
    but his comment #37 bothers me – unions being the enemy of the working poor, oh come on. my experience, as a union member for decades has been mostly positive.
    in today’s economy the unions can’t be accused of exorbidant wages, they are barely holding the line on maintaining benefits that were gained through sacrifice and unity years ago. their employers promised these things & in return the worker remained loyal. now they want to welch on their promises, and why? because (unlike Walmart, give them props, they know their customers ) they lost sight of the purpose of their enterprise – the customer/client & became beholden to the value of their company’s stock in the market, which has proven to be of unknown worth.
    similarly, the unions haven’t adapted to the modern economy either

  71. Re “Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators”: Of course, you aren’t looking at a representative sample of all employees. You’re only looking at employees who want to work at Wal-Mart. Could it possibly be that employees who want to work at mom and pops are actually working at mom and pops?

  72. “The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.”

    Nope, sorry, this doesn’t make any sense. What happens when everyone gets an education? You end up with educated people in Walmart.

    Think this is purely theoretical? Well, it probably is in the US since education is so expensive. However, in europe where people can actually get reasonable education for free, it’s a huge problem. See especially Spain and Greece. Tell all the service employees with Masters degrees in Athens to get a proper education and see if they don’t throw a molotov your way.

  73. “No doubt union advocates would say that the answer is for all industries to be unionized. Unfortunately this merely increases wages universally without increasing productivity. Some companies may be able to afford it; others will suffer in a global economy. As at GM.”

    No, it’s an attack on profits, recovering more of productive labours added value as wages. The fact that in a global economy they can run somewhere else doesn’t mean we should therefore have a race to the bottom. It means that we need an international industrial union movement to squeeze the profits everywhere.

  74. Now I just wonder if someone at walmart reads Wired Magazine & put 2 & 2 together…might explain a few things.

  75. In an thrws smpl-mndd nd slly anecdote about Mr. Platt’s limited employment at Wal-mart, whch ws lgcl fllcs nd bzrr ssmptns, I found this paragraph most telling:

    “As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories—when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money. … Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I’m guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.” (emphasis added)

    If Mr. Platt’s agenda or bias weren’t already obvious, this snn question revealed his anti-Union stance. Only a die hard anti-Union writer would ascribe bad motives to organizations that are fulfilling their explicit mandate.

    Mr. Platt’s rhetorical question is as malicious as asking “why do hospitals have ambulances? I bet it’s so they can get patients to get millions in medical bills.” Or, more topically, “why do the Steelers players try to score touch downs? I bet it’s so the organization can make more money from the fans.”

    Unions have the explicit goal of organizing and protecting workers. Monitoring the activities of an anti-Union organization, which is not only the largest retailer in the United States, but (from the Union’s point of view at least) underpays its workers and treats them poorly, would obviously be something one would expect of a Union.

    Mr. Pltt wrt ths rtcl n bd fth.

  76. The author betrays his biases when he assumes that the only reason the Unions could possibly want to unionize WalMarts is for the dues, what with their being such heavens-on-earth.

  77. @Cicada

    CostCo treats it’s workers much better. My mother-in-law has worked there for years, climbing up from product demos to mid-management – with middle class wages and good benefits the entire time. I’m kinda shocked the author didn’t mention this well known comparison. And although unions are allowed there – it’s not completely unionized.

  78. Sorry, Charlie. Let’s bypass the issue of the 90 people you aced out of one of those 10 positions for your entertainment and to further your career. The reason Walmart so studiously reminded you to take your breaks is that it is the law – a law that unions caused to be passed and that Walmart has been convicted of breaking.

  79. Charles, aside from thinking unions should eat a bag of dicks, do you also think all these issues listed here at walmartwatch.com are just lies to help fill union coffers?

    http://walmartwatch.com/issues/

    I would very much like to hear you refute each and every issue with some sort of valid argument. Let’s take your “investigative journalism” to the next level.

    picture related: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_1.jpg

  80. After a scan of the comments, I didn’t see anyone mentioning race/sex/age here. As much as many would like to think that the election of Obama signals a post-racist America, I’d guess/hope that most boingboing readers know better. Mr. Platt and Adam Shepard are both white American males. When I read Mr. Platt’s account of the respect with which he was treated by management and his being encouraged toward Wal-Mart’s brand of ‘professional development’ (grooming for store management potential?) via the computers in the back room, I wondered immediately whether a younger and or non-white worker would have been so encouraged. Similarly, when I read his references to Adam Shepard’s success with his own experiment, I felt the nod to race factors conspicuously absent in the stated conclusion, ‘People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard’. These types of journalists would do better to recognize their intrinsic position of advantage as determined by race/class/sex/age in their ‘objective’ accounts on the nature of living and struggling in the lowest income brackets of society.

  81. I have to chime in on the union point made back at #37, that they’re basically the enemy of non-unionized workers. Mr. Platt suggests that they’re mainly competing with their peers in other companies for resources. Largely, unions provide the leverage to compete with the higher pay grades within the same company. It’s a drag on corporate profits, yes, and reduces the relative pay discrepancy between the bottom of the pay grade and the top.

    I just suspect that the relatively small wage increases secured by unions for workers do not significantly affect inflation. Given the distributions of wealth, union membership, and wages within most corporations, it seems like a very long speculative step to inflation that extends beyond the relative wage gains.

  82. Wal-Mart has a long history of mistreating workers, especially women.

    A few years ago I read a very interesting biography of Sam Walton: “In Sam we Trust” by Bob Ortega. I recommend it for anyone interested in the effect the company has had on our country.

    I was surprised to read that even in Wal-Mart’s first store (opening back in 1962) Sam paid his store workers less than the minimum wage.

    My impression over the past 16 years is that since his death, the employees at the bottom matter even less to the company than they did when Sam was alive.

  83. Wow – I worked for two different wal*mart stores, each for about one year each, and that was not my experience at all. I was frequently working 7-8 hours with, at best, a 10 minutes unpaid break (understaffed was the typical excuse); training was for one day; safety training was non-existant; and management when they were around were pretty much demeaning.

    I worked at McDonalds with a better experience then that.

    Luckily, I was able to finish my degree, and while I still work retail – this year will be my 20th year working retail (now just part time); I can honestly say that Wal*mart, remains by far the worst experience I ever had as far abusive labor practices went.

  84. @BSR
    “Mr. Platt wrote this article in bad faith.”

    This I simply do not believe. Mr. Platt was expressing an opinion which happened to be different then your own. This does not mean he is writing in bad faith.

  85. Mr. Platt,

    Thanks for an interesting article and a contrarian perspective.

    Also, by the way, you just reached a larger audience than Ms. Ehrenreich has. Just food for thought.

  86. I’ve worked at Wal-Mart (and several other minimum wage jobs) and I’ve read Nickeled and Dimed In America. And while I didn’t love the book I could at least respect the effort and the information. Based on my experience and that of my family I’ll have to respectfully disagree with this post. You’re entitled to your opinion but it strikes me as naive and ignorant. I don’t mean that as an insult and I may well be wrong but I find this post incredibly hard to believe.

  87. “I just suspect that the relatively small wage increases secured by unions for workers do not significantly affect inflation. Given the distributions of wealth, union membership, and wages within most corporations, it seems like a very long speculative step to inflation that extends beyond the relative wage gains.”

    I’m not sure this is true. I think that historically inflation has been driven by capitalists attempting to recover profits lost by increasing prices as a response to unions. This seems to be part of the effect of the relatively powerful working class during the ’70s.

    However, it still put the working class in a much better position and translated into big gains for most people. The neo-liberal program (decimation of the unions) has translated almost all GDP growth into growth in income for the upper 5%. The rest of us have had extremely modest growth, largely funded by credit. The fact that most people have seen a 5% rise in growth while the GDP went up 50% makes clear where the money goes in the absence of unions.

  88. The thing that Mr. Platt and most of the commenters miss is that the same workers who might get promoted to $9.00 an hour by showing initiative at Wal-mart could be making 12 – 15 as a factory worker–except that there ARE no factory jobs because WalMart and the Home Depot and companies like them have exported all the factory jobs overseas!

    I saw somebody above had referred to how this outsourcing of production represented the inevitable “maturation” of our economy, and sure, as long as you’re using the word “maturation” in the sense meaning “crippling.”

    There’s plenty of blame to go around as we look around at the shriveled wreckage of America’s manufacturing base, but Wal-Mart as a leader in its industry can rightfully take a good percentage of it.

    So they’re treating their domestic workers better these days. Better but nowhere near good enough. Their primary sins remain unaddressed.

  89. Simon Cameron at 82: Mr Platt was expressing a cluster of foolish, ugly opinions, widely shared by ignorant, thoughtless, and morally repellent people, and he’s getting a well-justified verbal kicking for it. A number of commenters have pointed out the factual, logical, economic and moral errors in his post. He’s been noticably unforthcoming in responding to these objections, apart from trotting out some dimwitted winger cliches about unions. Calling this bad faith doesn’t seem too strong to me, but perhaps we could be more charitable: maybe Platt is just a moral and political idiot. Either way, he doesn’t get to ‘express an opinion’ and then not get told what’s wrong with it.

  90. I really enjoyed this piece. Anecdotal, yes, but still refreshing and balancing. I’m surprised the response is so snarkedantic.

    When I first came out West, I lived in a tent, dived the dumpster at the local Safeway, and hitchhiked 35 miles to work. Saved money, rented a cheap apartment with a friend, and worked as a pot-scrubber (was later promoted to dishwasher!). Those were some of the best days of my life.

    There are plenty of people in this world who dream of working in a third-world sweatshop that supplies Wal-Mart’s goods, let alone the Wal-Mart itself.

    Great post Airshowfan #68.

  91. I find all the bickering about Platt’s position here irrelevant.

    Platt’s article demonstrates something wholly unsurprising : Wal-Mart can be a nice place to work, and the people are mostly happy. That’s totally unremarkable, as far as I can see, mostly because people are on the whole, good, and the true “hell hole” workplace is rare.

    The debate here, and indeed, Platt’s article, bypasses the giant elephant in the room.

    That is of course, the role that Wal-Mart has played in securing the “depression” that y’all are enjoying right now.

    By squeezing out the smaller stores (yes, even with their “bad” produce and “expensive” goods), Wal-Mart has succeeded in shipping most of the US’ jobs offshore.

    You may love the fact that you can go to Wal-Mart any hour of the day, and buy a pie-pan, or a gun, or whatever, at 1/10th the price that anyone else charges, but you have to realise that buying goods from a store with WELL DOCUMENTED practises of squeezing suppliers to the point where they have no choice but to move production offshore, by buying from that store, you’re basically selling jobs overseas.

    The American nightmare you see now is a direct result of this kind of “cost cutting” and respect for the “bottom line” rather than their employers, or the future, that so many American firms have engaged in since the early 90’s.

    The bottom line is, conditions at Wal-Mart are irrelevant, when you shop there, you’re killing America’s productive base one tiny bit at a time, while contributing to poor working conditions and pay rates in the ‘3rd world’ countries that make all the crap you buy.

    Who CARES about Unions? What about being competitive in the global economy?

    And finally – Platt’s statement that Unionised workers (and thus workers on higher pay) would somehow make Wal-Mart un-competitive is laughable – did you see Wal-Mart’s profit margin last year Charles? Perhaps it wouldn’t break the bank to give employees a ONE DOLLAR pay rise and still be profitable. Your model of capitalism is fundamentally flawed.

  92. Several posts have claimed that unions just raise wages for their members and raise prices; this increases the cost of living for unorganized workers.

    This may make sense in the case of unions that only focus on a certain trade. (especially a narrow skilled trade, but it may also apply to unskilled service workers in only one company or sector). This is why we need a union for all workers. Workers are entitled to the ENTIRE product of their labor. We should organize and agitate until we can take back all corporate profit. We can make decisions about investment, hiring, firing, and etc better than the bosses. A democratic, worker-run union could do more for worker safety, standard of living, and job quality than any government or company policy. Dump the bosses off your back!

  93. 1. Wal-Mart is not evil; it’s the system that allows Wal-Mart to exist that is evil.

    2. The way management treats you at Wal-Mart is irrelevant. They’re only a couple of rungs up higher on the ladder. It may be fairly easy to become a CSM (supervisor of cashiers, still payed hourly), or to become an assistant manager (salaried).. but I wouldn’t exactly call that a success story.

    3. Some Wal-Marts are more pleasant to work for than others and this can change over time. I worked at Walmart for six summers while I was in college. I knew that “Nickled and Dimed” was a load of crap– it’s an insult to anybody who comes from a minimum-wage earning background (like me– my mom raised me while working at a gas station for most of my childhood and is now a cab driver). I scoffed at the whole “training” process which involved watching videos with terrible arguments about how unions are evil and trying to take money from Wal-Mart employees (hmmm… sound familiar?) and training modules on computers that don’t really confirm that you’ve learned anything at all (I passed all the ‘tests’ with a 100% with just short-term memory– I didn’t retain anything after that).

    But, you know what? The actual experience of working there wasn’t that bad at first. I made some good friends who over the years have come to be like a family to me. But, every year management would change and the ‘rules’ would change. This summer, instead of just laying people off, the company was cutting hours. I used to get 40 hours a week as a temp worker… last summer I was lucky to get 20ish hours a week. I wasn’t trying to live off from my WalMart income, so it was only mildly annoying for me. But, it was more than mildly annoying for just about everybody else in the store. It was earth-shattering. My friends were choosing between food and medication. The worst part? Quitting was not an option, because Wal-Mart has shut down ALL the competition in the area. Everybody was so happy for me for being accepted to grad school and having the chance to move away (to an even more economically depressed area, it turns out). They even threw me a little party and gave me much needed supplies for my new apartment.

    This wasn’t the company, but the people working for it.

    I don’t really know what I’m getting at here, but I can’t stand people mindlessly bashing Wal-Mart specifically without realizing that it is a mere side-effect of capitalism. I also can’t deal with people defending Wal-Mart and spitting out their arguments. Wal-Mart is a place to work.. and because of their practices in many places it’s the only place to work…. even if you DO have a college education.

  94. Some of the reasons unions are against Wal-Mart are some of the reasons my very conservative, very anti-union relatives (who own a retail establishment) are against Wal-Mart: It sells foreign-made crap and crowds out local retailers.

  95. @ jacobian # 85:

    Spot on. One of the primary things I’ll take from my sojourn at Domino’s Pizza is how the company raised prices in response to a minimum wage hike. And I’m sure McDonald’s did the same, so that in the end, the Domino’s worker could afford fewer hamburgers and the McDonald’s worker fewer pizzas.

    And while such a lesson has left me with a skeptical outlook towards minimum wage hikes, the other lesson there should be: don’t fear inflation a priori, because it can in fact fuel the economy, especially if it is initiated by wage increases to the mid-level earners who are doing the driving.

  96. Sorry, what were you employed at Wal-Mart as again? Someone in recruitment at Wal-Mart deserves a big bonus.

  97. @Cicada

    I would rather suggest that thanks to civil society failing the poor, economic society is worse off as well. Millions of people in too bad a shape (in a social, mental, physical or educational sense) to contribute much does no-one any good.

    Hard work *should* be rewarded with money, because many people thrive that way – but before you can join that system, you need to be in a good enough shape to do that work. The agenda I perceive behind Platt & Shepard is to further reduce society’s (already rather dismal) support for the poor. But contrary to what their (rigged) experiments suggest, people living on the edge of existence cannot be expected to all just bootstrap themselves out of their misery.

    Aiding the poor and “unfit”, though it may cost lots of money and be less glamorous than entrepreneurship, does ultimately benefit the economy. (Not to speak of moral reasons to help those who need it.)

  98. You made some very good points. Right up until you mentioned unions backing sites like walmartwatch.com. This is America, and that’s how it works, which is a good thing. WalMart has NO unionized stores in the US. I’m not a union member, but they have a place in this country, and WalMart’s union busting actions are illegal. You may have found some happy-go-lucky store environment, but I’ve been in these stores, and it’s not like that in most of them. I quit shopping there a few years ago. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I learned that they didn’t want to pay health insurance for their employees, so they were making every effort to make sure that they had as few full time employees as possible. This, after they close down the other local stores that had been providing health insurance for those same people.

    I do like WalMart’s environmental leadership in the retail community, but they need to expand that to more social leadership, and then I might consider spending my hard earned cash there.

  99. @ rastronomicals #94:

    …One of the primary things I’ll take from my sojourn at Domino’s Pizza is how the company raised prices in response to a minimum wage hike. And I’m sure McDonald’s did the same, so that in the end, the Domino’s worker could afford fewer hamburgers and the McDonald’s worker fewer pizzas.

    That makes about as much sense as saying “let’s pay the kids who make sneakers 15 cents an hour so they will be able to afford more T-shirts.” What it really comes down to is:

    1) Do you believe there should be a minimum wage at all?
    2) If so, what criteria should we use to determine that wage?

  100. I’d suggest that while the point made (repeatedly) about this being just the writer’s indivdual experience is valid, it’s also a simple fact that for every horror story (often which seem to be about the managers in the cases mentioned above) there’s 1000 or more stories exactly like the subject of the article.

    And the sentiment made at least twice that unions help to ensure that skilled labour is provided while ensuring that skilled labourers are properly compensated… well that would apply to SKILLED labour wouldn’t it? How many positions in Wal- Mart require more than a couple days’ training exactly? It simply doesn’t compare to the requirements of carpentry, accounting, rocket science, network administration, or any of a long list of jobs that definitely require lots of hands- on experience or education to be even sort of competent at it.

    And it is a low wage, but people can live on low wages if they don’t assume they need certain things. You want a big house you don’t need it. You want a car but more than likely you don’t really need it (and the $400+ per month costs in fuel, insurance and maintenance that cars require) So more often than not people wanting to live on the low wage want to live in a manner outside that wage. Luxuries need to be trimmed. or a better job needs to be had.

  101. re: adam shepard… how very inspiring that a young, able bodied, mentally stable, college educated male athlete wasp, who received his 2 degrees on a basketball scholarship, with little or no criminal record, and looks like he just stepped off a baywatch set, could make it in this world. It must have been hard resisting the temptation to call up mommy and daddy for pizza $$$… for 10 whole months.

    http://www.scratchbeginnings.com/about-the-author

    Unfortunately, not everyone has all these advantages…interesting that this “Self Made Man” would stoop so LOW as to rely on the social safety net to get by… I mean living in a shelter? shelters are for the weak and lazy.

    And your story… incredibly motivational. Taking a job so below your station, one you know you could walk out of at a moment’s notice and still eat next week… Demonstrating that you can perform the tasks required for a job you don’t intend to keep for more than a couple weeks, just to prove that you can do it and that other people are whiners.

    you SHOULD write a book. Tell us the grueling tale of someone who, with no health problems to speak of, an independently stable separate income, good medical coverage, a college education, and the racial and gender advantages afforded to him by accident of his birth, managed to keep a job for 3 weeks. Tell us the story of a man who grew up with every advantage and who’s only mental disability seems to be that he still fails to realize exactly how lucky he is that he was born in that fashion to the right set of parents… and that there are other people in the world who are not so lucky.

    You and this Adam character act like it was all there for the taking and you just stretched out your hand and grasped what was yours. You were carried to the top of the mountain by your forefathers, and you act like you climbed it on your hands and knees. You stand on the shoulders of giants, and ask why they have bruises on their necks…

  102. The whole “more education” argument is nothing but a red herring. By claiming the applicant needs “more education” you can get rid of them for several years.

    And by the time they obtain that necessary additional education, who knows? The horse just may learn to sing after all.

    I’m a little surprised to see this sort of viewpoint being expressed at BoingBoing. It’s something I’d expect to find at RedState or Pajamas Media, but not here.

  103. What about shopping there? I’m one of the $250,000 losses. Whatever money people save shopping there they earn through their own efforts of trying to locate anything or someone with the knowledge to help. At least this has been my experience. I’m sure regular shoppers know the layout and there have been positive experiences. I can’t stand going into the places though…too big, too much stuff everywhere, too crazy, no assistance.

    The only thing I see as unfair about the massive amounts of wal-mart criticisms is the lack of criticisms of other big box stores. But they are the leader.

  104. A defense of Wallmart would be better if you also answered specific charges made against it. Without a willingness to even acknowledge some of the detractors statements, your argument is still horribly one sided.

    Unions and Walmart have been horribly antagonstic to each other. But just as unions are sending anti walmart messages, Walmart orientations are very anti-union.

    Your report thus far says nothing about allegations made about racism or sexism with walmart, which will be harder for you to see as a white man. It does not mention the provision of health care to emplyees, the drain on local taxes, the loss of average pay within the community, the closing of independent small business, and other similar allegations.

    In your final statement, you are also forgetting that a single person working his way up from nothing is a lot different than a person trying to raise a family. the single individual has a lot more budgetary leeway than a person with a family.

    I also have a final question as to how long you have been on the job, and how dependent have you made yourself on this job? It’s easy to keep up appearances for the first few weeks. but its the people in the long haul who begin to see the problems. Also, if you are not making yourself as dependent on this job as others, you will not get a realistic experience, because any problem on the job just will not affect you the way it will affect someone really in the experience.

    —-Zack

  105. Mr Platt still hasn’t mentioned whether he’s understood that the nice quality of work he experienced at Wal-Mart was due in a very large part to the work done by unions and book’s like Ehrenreich’s in exposing the awful working conditions at Wal-Mart and getting new laws passed, years before Platt’s “experiment” started?

    Mr Platt was experiencing the benefits of those new laws. He might as well have written a post about how he registered his wife to vote, and how that proved that the suffragettes were no more than “hand-wringers.”

    His lack of acknowledgment of his better standings in life (educated, not trying to support a family on a single income, just “dipping a toe in” for a few weeks) simply show Platt’s own biases in his self-reporting and conclusions, which were at least as biased as Ehrenreich’s. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t responded to these things.

    Never-the-less, thanks for the interesting and provoking BB post.

  106. Civil society begins by being civil. Many of the commenters have disagreed with CP with reason and eloquence, advancing significant objections to CP’s post. Well done. Others have questioned his motives and called him names.

    We have a built in revulsion to anything that contradicts our current beliefs and an affinity to things that support our current beliefs. Only disciplined use of the forebrain can save you from the very simple and seductive errors in reasoning that follow.

    After all, the opportunity to learn more and change beliefs is a valuable gift – say thank you!

    CP’s main point about good education has been under appreciated. I hesitate to attribute his post to a lack of compassion for the challenges that face a wide swath of Americans.

  107. A great post. As a former homeless person I have climbed my way over many obstacles. Honestly I get tired of people asking me how I did or applauding my survival. Humans are resilient creatures. I have worked many min-wage jobs. Now I make ass loads of cash. And I can take pride in knowing I worked my ass off from every rung in this ladder. And this economy? Does not scare me. I do a podcast where I yap about this stuff: http://minnesotastrip.podbean.com/

    One thing about the guy who dropped himself in the shelter… It’s totally different to have real life circumstances put you on the street. It can destroy your self esteem. And if you are female and /or of color… it gets deeper. It’s harder to get a job and people don’t pay you as much. Add a kid or two on the pile and you’re screwed. I’d just like to point that out.

  108. Having worked at Wal-Mart for 2 1/2 years while working through college in the late 90’s, I found Nickled and Dimed to be pretty spot-on. My wife worked there at the same time (it’s where we met) and she had pretty much the same experience that I did.

    A few years ago she lost her job and, unable to find work anywhere else, went back. They re-hired her because of her previous experience with the company and she said the environment had improved. Wages were slightly up from before and the culture seemed a little friendlier.

    However, the shady, dubiously legal anti-union practices were still in effect.

  109. Charles Platt @ #40:

    [BLOCKQUOTE]But I was too old, too impatient, and too lazy to sustain my Wal-Mart employee status while moving myself from one location to another around the US. That would be been extremely challenging.[/BLOCKQUOTE]

    Yeah, exactly. But most people on minimum wage don’t have the luxury of quitting after a month or two to write blog posts.

    My problem with Ehrenreich’s book was that, having lived on below minimum wage for many years without any other source of help or support, I could see how obvious it was that so many of her assumptions and choices came from having been a well-educated, privileged white woman from the suburbs. She didn’t even scratch the surface of what it’s really like.

    People like me who have to live in these economic situations almost always have very different backstories than Ehrenreich or Platt, and we don’t all have desk jobs to go back to when the going gets tough. It’s a completely different way of looking at the world, and your place in it.

  110. Mr. Pltt: Nc rtcl. dmr tht y dcdd t xprnc ths fr yrslf, rthr thn tk thr ppls’ pnns n th mttr.

    ll th htrs: thr s bg dffrnc btwn n nfrml blg ntry nd rvwd+dtd bk; crtcsms r fn, bt syng tht ths s hrrbl jrnlsm r smlr s gnrng th cntxt. Ths s ll gd gdnc fr hw t prsnt th mtrl n bk n mnnr t vd rlng th htrs.

    T th nns: dn’t tll m tht cn’t s scrw drvr n th jb.

  111. @ BrainSpore’s #88: No, I don’t think there were factual errors in The High Cost Of Low Prices (or in Nickel and Dimed for that matter). It basically tells a series of sad stories that arguably illustrate injustice. But is Wal-Mart to blame? No, not for the most part. Given our system of capitalism, the rules that corporations must play by, the current interaction between the government and the market… those sad stories are almost inevitable. Wal-Mart just saw an opportunity and took it, and if we’re not ok with that (which is what the movie tries to accomplish), then we have to get the government to further restrict what Wal-Mart can do, or get the market to lead Wal-Mart to do something else, if we want Wal-Mart to act more morally.

    The low-paying retail jobs with no benefits and no unionizing, the manufacturing jobs going overseas, the current economic climate… these are all direct consequences of the current relationship between the government (representing the morality that we as citizens want to enforce) and the market (representing the stuff that we as consumers and investors want to have). Luckily for us, that relationship is not (quite) set in stone.

  112. I should have read Zarkonnen @#48 before responding. S/he explained it much better, and in more universal terms.

  113. “yet many people feel quite happy about crude economic intervention, even though a free-market economy is just as complex, interrelated, and easily damaged as an ecology.”

    I know! Its dreadful but you just can’t stop those economists from sticking their fingers into everything.

    Free market as an ecology is an interesting notion – I hope that means it has as limited a life span as most of the ecologies it impacts on.

  114. @22, @37: Your assessment of schools is extremely biased. Poor students generally have spent far less time hearing and using language (any language, even a different language than the one spoken at school) than their more privileged peers, which puts them at a great disadvantage in terms of developing an academic vocabulary, reasoning skills, and so on. These students have heard something like a million fewer instances of words spoken in the first years of life, and this actually makes a difference in long term academic achievement.

    This difference is partially due to the time and energy each student’s parents have to spend to support the family. If both parents are working multiple jobs, which can and does often happen with minimum-wage work, this puts the students at a serious disadvantage when they enter the school system. Add to that the fact that often these students are segregated from their more well-off peers because of a lack of affordable housing, and little scaffolding of language development by peers occurs. (Students don’t hear academic language used by peers, therefore are less likely to develop the vocabulary and skills to use it.)

    So where do these students end up when they have graduated or left school? Working low wage jobs, just like their parents. Poverty and demand for this type of work is a far greater societal problem than just the quality of their teachers and schools, and the low wage conditions that are created and perpetuated by Wal-Mart and its ilk have no small part in the cycle.

    I don’t object to the existence of minimum-wage jobs, just the blaming of our education on their existence and perpetuation, nor is the system entirely blameless. However, it cannot sustain all the responsibility for the perpetuation of the low-wage system.

  115. @_kevitivity:

    “Few people who take minimum wage jobs stay at that pay level for very long.”

    I think that would depend entirely on what your definition of “pay level” is. Frankly, it sounds like you just pulled this bit of information out of your you-know-what. If someone takes a job at Subway, at minimum wage, they may see a $0.25 increase in their salary in a year. Or maybe not. One thing I can say for certain is that the people who work at my neighborhood Subway have been there for years, and not a single one of them is happy.

    “Most people quickly move up the ladder.”

    Again, where are you getting this? In case you hadn’t noticed, the legs are being removed from the individual ladders with alarming speed. Our economy is in freefall… millions of jobs may be lost before it’s all said and done. And you really believe that minimum-wage earners “quickly move up the ladder”? What planet are you on? The guy who takes an entry-level job at McDonald’s isn’t going to be manager anytime soon. And even if he is, he’ll be in roughly the same ballpark financially.

    That said, Wal-Mart is far less evil than the Carlyle Group. Surprise! A toenail-pulling fascist is better than a murdering, raping fascist. I guess.

  116. #6 – $9.60? I was the store manager of a B Dalton Bookstore and I made $8.50 an hour. $9.60 is a pretty healthy wage for anything retail. Come to think of it, I’ve held quite a few retail positions and never made that much.

    The only way to get rich in retail is to own the store. I’ve known many people who have worked for Walmart. Some have been really happy, some have hated it. In that respect, Walmart is really no different from any employer.

  117. Have any of you even READ Nickel and Dimed? If it wasn’t bad enough that the author used a car not included in her menial wage expenses, I almost dropped the book when she whined about how her initial attempt to work at Wal-Mart failed because of their evil drug testing policy. POT ISN’T AN AMERICAN RIGHT. It would be nice if it is, but for now you have to suffer with the rest of us. Which was the premise of her book, and for all that it might have accomplished she shares nothing with average low-income Americans and her spoiled elitist attitude didn’t help.

    I cracked up when she didn’t understand why her co-workers didn’t fall over when she revealed unto them her status as an academic. If you read her shock that they only cared about who was going to cover her shift now, you might understand what I’m talking about. The book was highly recommended to me by friends who didn’t understand why I didn’t love it and worships its author. I may be a peer of the highly educated but I paid for that education myself through ‘regular’ jobs. Something I doubt my friends or the author struggled with.

  118. Good article. Enjoyable comments.
    @ matt katz #106: I agree wrt civility.

    I’m continually astounded by the variety in perspectives and the conclusions that result.

  119. The Wisdom of Wal-Mart is as irrefutable as its music department–it’s great if you don’t know any better, and that’s all you can get.

  120. I’m continually astounded by the variety in perspectives and the conclusions that result.

    And it’s important not to minimise others’ conclusions when our results come in.

  121. a quick thought in response to

    “If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point.”

    > cultural capital counts for most of the imbalance in class power.

  122. Weird that an educated white man would have a different experience at Wal-Mart than an educated white woman- I think Platt is leaving out any race/gender/class self-identification part of his Wal-Mart experience, which Ehrenreich certainly went to pains to discuss.

  123. t’s bvs frm hs ntr tht Mr. Pltt knw wht h ws n fr whn h drd t mk pst dssntng frm sm f th fvrt dctrns f wht sms t b mjrty hr n th l’ BB cmmnts sctn. Gd fr y fr gng hd wth t, sr.

    I’d just like to say, from personal experience in a small desert town, that Wal-Mart is far preferable to the local businesses that couldn’t compete with it. You got poor selection, high prices, and crappy service, because they were the only game in town. Now Wal-Mart is the only game in town, and yet you get better selection and low prices. Well, Meat Loaf was right, two out of three ain’t bad. (The local businesses that have been able to compete are the ones that concentrate on knowledgeable and friendly service. People will definitely pay a premium for that. I certainly do.)

    The only way to fight the bad actions of large corporations is to fight the legal gangs with which they collude to make those actions possible: governments. (ps, my hv jst blsphmd! ‘m n trbl f sm f th pr-vlnc cmmntrs hr vr mng t cqr nflnc nd pwr. “I tell you boys even I’m worried what’s gonna happen once Ringo runs this outfit. God have mercy!” — Curly Bill Brocius Tombstone)

  124. Not only has Platt not said how long he worked at Wal-Mart, or whether he tried to live solely on his paycheck from them, but there are also a couple of other interesting questions for him:

    1) Did he really try to replicate Ehrenreich’s entire experiment–that is, trying other minimum-wage jobs–or does he really think that one individual experience, at one Wal-Mart, is sufficient to refute her basic argument?

    2) Did Platt ever stop to consider that Wal-Mart may have treated him differently because, after Ehrenreich’s book, they do a quick Google on applicants–especially older, better-educated applicants–to see if they’re journalists?

    All in all, I’m quite disappointed in Platt after this.

  125. Summary:
    1. Working at Wal-Mart is boring
    2. The system that allows for Wal-Mart is evil
    3. We live with this system all the same
    4. Unions have a purpose
    5. Sometimes the purpose of unions and the agendas of individual unions are at cross-purposes
    6. I would never work at Wal-Mart
    7. I would never be hired to work at Wal-Mart (piss test…)
    8. If Wal-Mart were the only employer in my area,I’d move…
    9. Some people are willing to work, or have no choice but to work at Wal-Mart
    10. These are good people
    11. They deserve more.

  126. Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

    Ah yes, the “Free Market”. The one where the biggest company in the world demands TIF money and corporate welfare in order to bless a neighborhood with one of their stores while those mom & pops are left to compete in the “real” market.

  127. I know I am a bit late, however, I worked at a Wal-Mart for over six months and therefore have a qualified opinion. Several points are missed.

    1. The Cult of Wal-Mart

    Wal-Mart exhibits some clearly cultist behavior. It has large pictures of the found and his sayings in the back common room. The opening cheer of the day is another thing I find cultish. The fact there are no last names at the store and the different language used, tops off this section. Alcohol is even frowned on. I remember my SWAS manager saying that during his training that he got very, very dirty looks when he ordered a beer on company dime at a dinner with other managers. Tobacco and firearms are not sold in stores in Canada either. I know they are in the States though. The moralism also extends to profanity where they don’t allow anything “offensive” sold in their stores, including profanity in songs. (company policy)

    2. Low Wages that don’t go up

    Wal-Mart doesn’t just keep prices low by squeezing the producers, they squeeze the employees. The managers get incentives to keep your wages down. I certainly didn’t have my pay increase when I got better skills. I think the most squeezed though are the assistant managers in the store. For the work they do, they are the least paid. (From what I heard)

    If you can get past those two points, Wal-Mart is a great place to work. For all the good reasons mentioned in the original post. Safety and regulations are adhered to impeccably. If you do what is in your job description, you have nothing to worry about.

    If you want to avoid the cult, get into one of the sub-stores, like the tire-lube express or the pharmacy, they are pretty sheltered. There is just no way to get paid more by these people.

  128. I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting

    Gee, ya think? 100% correct you are. Except that I couldn’t call it “reporting”. Ehrenreich- who, as a scientist should have known and practiced better- simply took her attitude and tried to create data (or something like it) to support it. I do remember he saying at some point in her book that she wasn’t trying to do a precisely controlled experiment. That’s obvious… I haven’t read Scratch Beginnings, but I imagine that to some degree or other Adam Shepard may well have indulged in the same sort of bias validation. He doesn’t, however, have anywhere as much emotional/political baggage as Ehrenreich, who somehow fails to make much of the fact (or even mention) that she’s head-first and ankle-deep in the Democratic Socialists of America.

  129. Senior year in High school (’97) 2 friends and I had pretty much the same job. One worked at Walmart, the other at Safeway and myself at Costco. Safeway was a union shop, Walmart the exact opposite. Costco had a few locals in the back for the Butchers, Bakers and forklift operators but I wasn’t union.

    My friend at Safeway made more then the my other friend and I and is actually moved up with the company. At Costco my managers loved me and wanted to move me into the meat department but I left for an internship at the Denver Business Journal. My friend at Walmart on the other hand… The worst paid out of us, with the worst manager and ended up getting hurt because a pallet stack he warned management about fell over on him.

    Walmart lets it’s management ruin it’s reputation and need to clean up shop.

  130. Zarkonnen at #48 said most of what I wanted to say. I’ll add: I appreciate you taking on a shibboleth like this one, Mr. Platt. But right at the outset of your experiment, you say, “Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me.” Because of your vast experience with Wal-Mart employment in the past, I presume?

    Look, you started out with an agenda, and you made some valid counterpoints. It’s dishonest for you to pretend at neutrality.

    As for Adam Shephard, I would like to suggest that he also develop schizophrenia, a drug habit, a history of abuse, a poor or non-existent education, extremely poor personal hygiene stemming from a life of neglect, and weak bones and muscles due to malnutrition … and then try his little experiment again. You may be incorrect, but Shephard is just a dipshit.

  131. Allow me two comments please. The unions do not want to unionize Walmart for the dues, they want to unionize the company so that it’s employees can take advantage of collective bargaining. I am glad Mr Platt had a benign experience during his employment there, but because the employees are each individual agents while the corporation functions as a single entity, there would be little he could have done, aside from quit, if this had not been the case.

    Secondly, with regard to Adam Shepard, the deciency of a society is not indicated by how its strongest and most ambitious fare, but how well its weakest and most vulnerable are able to do. Those without the physical and mental resiliency of Adam Sheperd will be crushed by the very wheel that carried him to the top.

    Marya,
    Member who has forgotten her user ID

  132. I think I’d rather work for a mom and pop with real people who care about what they are doing and might treat me like a human being rather than the robot someone at corperate on the other side of the country who’s never dealt with customers face to face wants.

    What happens is you get cluless execs in the south who forbid anyone in MN from wearing a sweater in the winter when they have to stand near the door or go outside.

  133. @ 133- Lk, y strtd t wth n gnd, nd y md sm vld cntrpnts. t’s dshnst fr y t prtnd t ntrlty.
    Y’r tlkng bt Chrwmn hrnrch, rght?

  134. 1. The Cult of Wal-Mart

    Wal-Mart exhibits some clearly cultist behavior. It has large pictures of the found and his sayings in the back common room. The opening cheer of the day is another thing I find cultish. The fact there are no last names at the store and the different language used, tops off this section. Alcohol is even frowned on. I remember my SWAS manager saying that during his training that he got very, very dirty looks when he ordered a beer on company dime at a dinner with other managers. Tobacco and firearms are not sold in stores in Canada either. I know they are in the States though. The moralism also extends to profanity where they don’t allow anything “offensive” sold in their stores, including profanity in songs. (company policy)

    None of that is unusual. I have encountered those sorts of things in some of the places I have worked.

  135. Senior year in High school (’97) 2 friends and I had pretty much the same job. One worked at Walmart, the other at Safeway and myself at Costco. Safeway was a union shop, Walmart the exact opposite. Costco had a few locals in the back for the Butchers, Bakers and forklift operators but I wasn’t union.

    My friend at Safeway made more then the my other friend and I and is actually moved up with the company. At Costco my managers loved me and wanted to move me into the meat department but I left for an internship at the Denver Business Journal. My friend at Walmart on the other hand… The worst paid out of us, with the worst manager and ended up getting hurt because a pallet stack he warned management about fell over on him.

    Walmart lets it’s management ruin it’s reputation and need to clean up shop.

    That’s anecdotal evidence at best. I can tell the same story with other companies and my friends and the results are the opposite.

  136. #18. “The typical newly hired Wal-Mart worker would try to work out an apartment-share arrangement, or would have a spouse contributing to rent.”

    LOL, the typical newly hired Wal-Mart worker would get married in order to afford rent? Or single people wouldn’t even bother to apply to Wal-Mart, because they wouldn’t be able to afford rent without a spouse? Your point about Ehrenreich’s experiment may be valid, but that was a weird way of putting it — retro-fitting workers’ lives so they fit better into Wal-Mart’s plans.

    “a free-market economy is just as complex, interrelated, and easily damaged as an ecology.”

    Free-market economy. Cool, where does one of those exist? Not the kind of place where Wal-Mart gets millions of dollars of tax deferments from towns or states competing for new stores to open there.

    Instead of comparing our romanticized “free-market” economy with a natural process, a better analogy would be a polar bear in a zoo as an example Breatharianism. Wal-Mart is the polar bear, pro-corporate govt policies are like the zookeepers who feed it out of sight of visitors. Calling ours a “free market” economy is like “breathairians” claiming the bears in zoos survive and prosper for years without food.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inedia

  137. people are not things. Any system, no matter how cleverly contrived and no matter what a testament to efficiency, that treats individual humans as interchangeable, standardized, expendable “plug-in” units” to be changed on burn-out, is not a system I will live under. It is important to be paying enough attention to this to make sure you always HAVE a choice. This is about self-determination. It is possible to exploit our need and right to decide our own destiny by dressing a user-system up in cunning disguise of false autonomy. Walmart excels at this because it has paid a great deal to talented professionals in the field of “industrial psychology” (an older discipline than most seem to realize) over many years to refine and hone an exploitation-machine that understands stealth as well as coercion.

    As Granny Weatherwax said, “Treating people as things, that’s where sin begins.”

    I remember reading Cloud Atlas. I see echoes of the ultimate Walmart retirement strategy therein.

  138. “As I begin my second week here as a guest blogger, I’m going to risk venturing into a couple of contentious political areas. My aim is not to provoke dissent; I simply feel that some stories are not being told.”

    Yh RGHT, ‘v ls strngly flt tht sm strs jst rn’t bng tld. Lk yr CHP-SHT HCKJB stry! ttrly flld wth bvs prtsn fllcs nd lm nn bstng schtcks.

    If you really did not have malignant intent then you’d answered the relevant complaints in #8 , #13 , #27 , #76 , #78 , #79. But you didn’t. So…

    And then the tear dripping “american dream” ending! How strange that that idea seems most popular among privileged folks like you who have not themselves had to from the start live through the utter economic and cultural injustice that most of the US is deeply structured by. Given the sum total wealth retained within the country every US citizen should feel nothing but shame with regard to the prevailing unfair economic distribution.

    Please let us know Platt: how many times more than the average american working poor did you get at Wired? Can you honestly say that you DESERVE that much more? Are you sure that you’ve worked that many times harder?

  139. People who don’t have experience or education have to start at the bottom. I have no ill feelings towards WM for this as it is the way things are. I don’t even care that they have stopped adhering to their founder’s ideals of “American Made”. But they are hostile towards employees trying to Unionize (a Constitutional Right) and they are hostile towards communities. They refuse to pay retail taxes, when they have “worn” out their welcome, they close shop and move to the next community leaving their real estate empty with no plans to sell (which is why our community will sieze their property under “blight” provisions of Imminent Domain and the new “needs of Economic Development” clause).
    You can keep shopping there because they are cheaper but driving prices lower drives wages down and ultimately turns economies into the lowest common denominator (Bienvenidos tu Mejico). They’re perfect for China.

    BUY AMERICAN!!!!!

  140. Charles Platt:
    “The typical newly hired Wal-Mart worker would try to work out an apartment-share arrangement, or would have a spouse contributing to rent. It’s just commonsense. You minimize your expenses while doing whatever you have to do (such as taking evening classes toward a degree) so that you don’t have to work at Wal-Mart forever. ”

    This works well if you are a single young person with few expenses/responsibilities or have a spouse who is employed. But the assumption here is that people who take a low wage employment have unlimited options in other areas of their life. This is simply not the case. People take jobs at places like Wal-Mart because they don’t have other options. This is especially true in rural areas where Wal-Mart is the only game in town. It would be wonderful if everyone worked in areas where there was free child care and low-cost night schools but reality doesn’t work that way.

    There is an amazing “let them eat cake” quality to this posting.

    Charles Platt:
    “I appreciate that union representation has secured higher wages for employees in some industries. But this of course gives these employees greater purchasing power, potentially driving up prices, and thus putting nonunionized workers at a disadvantage, since they too have to pay those prices. Therefore I see unions as the enemies of the non-unionized working poor.”

    Huh? or, in other words…

    “I appreciate that education has secured higher wages for employees in some industries. But this of course gives these employees greater purchasing power, potentially driving up prices, and thus putting uneducated workers at a disadvantage, since they too have to pay those prices. Therefore I see education as the enemy of the un-educated working poor.”

    “I appreciate that emancipation has secured higher wages for ex-slaves in some industries. But this of course gives these ex-slaves greater purchasing power, potentially driving up prices, and thus putting slaves at a disadvantage, since their overseers have to pay those prices. Therefore I see emancipation as the enemy of the slave.”

    “I appreciate that universal suffrage has secured increased rights for women in some countries. But this of course makes these women more powerful, potentially increasing freedoms in life, and thus putting disenfranchised women at a disadvantage, since they too have to live. Therefore I see universal suffrage as the enemy of the disenfranchised woman.”

  141. @ 86

    -except that there ARE no factory jobs because WalMart and the Home Depot and companies like them have exported all the factory jobs overseas!

    I work for an electronics manufacturer, headquartered in Wisconsin. Out of more than 5,000 employees worldwide, more than half are located in the United States.

    Including nearly 2,000 people who work directly in manufacturing.

    We currently have 245 openings for salaried positions, double that for hourly i.e. the guys on the floor.

    There are, true, fewer people employed in manufacturing than twenty-five years ago. This is because we’ve able to do more with less thanks to automation and advances in IT and management techniques.

    Your hyperbole and enthusiasm is appreciated, but I do wonder about your grasp of the facts of the situation.

  142. “How. long. did. you. work. there?”

    As if working there one day or one week or one year has a fundamental difference. In a cog- job (where you are but a cog in the operation and do a certain task repetitively), one day isn’t that different from the next.

    Working at Sears and Walmart I found that within a week I had the fundamental experience down, and over time it did not vary.

    fnd ttntn fcsd n th lngth f tm h’d wrkd thr rdcls. There is no magic amount of time to work at one of these jobs.

    s fr th ppl crtczng fr pplyng t wlmrt, nd tkng jb frm nthr pplcnt,

    Hw fckng msdrctd cn y b? t’s nt hs flt h gt hrd. Ths sn’t chrty, whrby wrk s pprtnd by mrl rght, bt crprtn whr n ffrt s md t fnd stbl cnddts fr th jb.

    Mrvr, vryn hrpng n hs “whtnss” cn y tll m th thnc mk p f whr h wrkd, r th cmmnty frm whch h ws hrd? Cn prv t m tht ws dcdng fctr n hm gttng th jb? nlss y hv prf tht hs rc ws drct fctr n hm gttng hrd, sht th fck p.

  143. Re: #137: “Free-market economy. Cool, where does one of those exist? Not the kind of place where Wal-Mart gets millions of dollars of tax deferments from towns or states competing for new stores to open there.”

    Exactly. So aim at governments and you take care of both.

    Re: #138: “The unions=evil, please-kick-me-Mr-Boss meme prevalent among libertarianish Americans confuses me deeply.”

    The freedom=evil, please-kick-me-Mr-Bureaucrat meme prevalent among statist Americans confuses me deeply.

    Honestly, that we confuse each other so much confuses me.

    Re: #139: “people are not things. Any system, no matter how cleverly contrived and no matter what a testament to efficiency, that treats individual humans as interchangeable, standardized, expendable “plug-in” units” to be changed on burn-out, is not a system I will live under.”

    If you live in the modern, bureucratized world, you already do live under such a system. The question is, what to do about that.

  144. my step-dad used to say that when the economy is bad, you get good service at McDonald’s

    the idea being that in a bad economy, good workers will take any job
    and in a good economy the reverse is true

    @ #145 “Unless you have proof that his race was direct factor in him getting hired, shut the fuck up.”

    Sounds like another angry white guy oblivious to the privileges that have padded his life.

    Did your parents get a GI bill or low-interest loan following WW2? People of color were excluded from this practice.

    Compounded, you, my friend have benefited from White privilege.

    There are many more examples, and hiring practices at Mal-wart and elsewhere would decidedly demonstrate this.

  145. Hi Charles,
    excellent article – and I think, after reading through some of the comments – I see your point of your decision not to write a book. There are just too many complainers around that hope somebody will handle their problems for them.
    Like “Give me a job” and “make that a well paying job as you are at it!”
    I also liked your idea about the reason behind the attacks of the unions – confirms my opinion that “follow the money” is always a good way to find why something is done.

    Generally I believe that “the world is as I see it” and not the other way around it, so we are the architects of our world.

    Funny story here, that I have a cousin that worked for Wal-Mart in the toy department for a few years and who now definitely does not want to have kids – – is that Wal-Marts fault?

  146. I appreciate that union representation has secured higher wages for employees in some industries. But this of course gives these employees greater purchasing power, potentially driving up prices, and thus putting nonunionized workers at a disadvantage, since they too have to pay those prices. Therefore I see unions as the enemies of the non-unionized working poor.

    1)Studies have shown that while unions tend to raise the wages of members significantly, they also tend to raise wages industry-wide, benefiting non-union workers as well.

    2)Seems that the solution you would advocate for the non-unionized working poor, is for all workers to be non-union and poor, so that prices would stay low. There are better solutions than that.

  147. Mr. Platt:

    I agree that Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of low-wage America rings false, but I believe that it is for the same reason that yours rings false, also. You and her both are, essentially, tourists. You’re an upper class white person ‘slumming it’ on the bad side of town, offering an outsider’s commentary on an economic place into which millions of people are born, and millions more will die. This is not a place for the casual visitor, as eruditely focused as one might offer an academic study of a few months spent getting to know the scene at a local dead-end dive bar.

    Granted, this was a short account, and I’m sure that book’s worth of material might illuminate your experiences more directly, but the central problem of class voyeurism remains. Wal-Mart is not controversial simply because it represents a big fat target to its critics, nor because it is some loathsome corporate Leviathan, but because it is the largest bellwether of a new sort of class crisis, an emerging moneyed slum in the heartlands of this country.

    It functions in many ways that a large mill or factory might have in the past century, devouring the existential condition of everyone within a large radius. And, like that mill or factory, you cannot expect to saunter in, put on a pair of coveralls and understand the frothing class machinations – it’s just not possible, unless you have lived it for real, known that you have no other options, that your life path is not totally under your control, nor will it ever be.

    I applaud your willingness to discuss what you confess is a controversial matter, but I think the very nature of the controversy is something that you may be incapable of fully grasping on a basic and immediate level, not due to any deficit in your character, but simply to the conditions of your reality.

  148. There are just too many complainers around that hope somebody will handle their problems for them.
    Like “Give me a job” and “make that a well paying job as you are at it!”

    Meanwhile Wal-Mart’s praised by your ilk for being a successful corporate welfare queen.

    Yeah Merlin, how crazy is it that people expect to get good pay for good work. Watch how Wal-Mart complains when cities refuse to hand them TIF money on silver platters.

  149. @#147: I’m not American and I’m very far from a statist; I suppose I’m a libertarian-socialist, and I’m certainly a trade unionist. Less confused?

  150. @153: That does help a little, actually. Gracias!

    (Except for the libertarian-socialist part, which is a concept I can’t seem to get translated from the abstract to the concrete.)

    Peace, Doc

  151. @151, I recollect reading something about how the female mill workers of the industrial revolution were the sexual chattels of the foremen and plant managers. How the workers were encouraged to “improve themselves” with writing diaries and how these diaries later revealed their inner feelings, sometimes of compelled revulsion at the expectation they would exploit these women. They did anyway of course. It was the “corporate culture”.

  152. #37. “Unfortunately this merely increases wages universally without increasing productivity.”

    If this were really a problem, wouldn’t it be borne out by lots of unionized European companies going stagnant or failing because they couldn’t compete globally? How do European companies stay afloat if these kinds of polices are so harmful?

  153. No idea if Platt worked at Walmart recently or soon after “Nickle and Dimed” came out. If the former, that might explain a lot about why a hundred people are trying to get hired at a Walmart, and why some of them sound desperate.

  154. Here’s the thing,

    I truly believe Wal-Mart is the root of all evil as is popular opinion. They are typically cruel to their workers (there was an incident in my town when Wal-Mart first moved in where they framed employees for shoplifting and then engaged in illegal interrogation in back rooms of the store which was allowed by a loophole in corporate policy), they use incredibly unethical practices to keep their prices low, and have been a large part of the rise of inflation over the years.

    However it doesn’t hurt to hear of a good experience once in a while. It’s..possibly refreshing to hear that Wal-Mart is being careful, creating example stores that try to disprove their bad reputation. Clearly everything they’re doing in this store is being very careful with their corporate policy, trying desperately (and even a little blatantly) to prove that they care about their employees and it appears to be working.

    It really doesn’t matter if he was trying to live off the Wal-Mart wage, or how long he worked there. The important part of this story is that you can’t monitor and understand any entity until you’ve heard every angle. I personally chose to understand the angle of this story as being an example of how Wal-Mart is careful to create a caring corporate identity even though it’s not truly who they are when you take a closer look.

  155. labour relations in Europe (in industrialized nations anyway) frequently had more socially understood acceptance that workers rights were human rights. I think it may have had something to do with living memory of real war in one’s own country.

  156. Ehrenreich tried actually living on the income from her employment. Have you tried that? Can you share your income figures? If not, I’d have to go along with her opnions.

  157. Funny, Cory just posted about someone identifying elements of an “american cargo cult” mythos, including

    You can succeed by emulating the purported behavior of successful people

  158. Here’s a question for bb and Wired readers: does Platt’s perspective on political economy seem to line up with Wired’s? Every time Wired touches on environmental questions, they seem inclined towards techno-fundamentalism, that any problem will be solved pretty easily with the right technology, and some adventurous upstarts are bound to make a bundle of cash in the process.

    Maybe market fundamentalism goes hand-in-hand with techno-fundamentalism?

  159. The reason you didn’t hear much about Adam Shepard is because HE FAILED!

    He was going to start with nothing and last a whole year but he could only do 10 months. He had to stop short because of a family illness. Unfortunately most working class people don’t have this luxury. I would also suggest that his family is in general more healthy and able to handle such family hardships than a working class family. Yet he still could not go a whole year.

    Also, he boasts that he was able to buy a car and save money within that 10 months. That may be one small triumph BUT the thing with cheap cars is that they break down often and require much maintenance. This quickly consumes any extra income. Often times a used car will break down at the most inconvenient times (go figure) such as on your way to work. So this eventually effects your employment as well.

    Now combine a family illness with a used car that eats up your excess cash and a low paying laborious job, and you run into a personal crisis which is difficult to manage and overcome.

    Believe it or not, this eventually wears you down both mentally and physically as you continue to work your butt off but feel that you are not progressing.

    So to me it seems very easy for these chumps to manufacture a positive outcome and preach that things aren’t that bad for workers when they rely on a self described “brief experience” they had while vacationing between their real jobs.

    Librul.com

  160. I’ve worked in two different wal-marts.
    One was incredibly laid back, no dress code aside from wear a nametag and smock, I got along with all my coworkers, managers, and customers, worked the sales floor, and found very little stress involved in the job, and yes, I could afford my rent, utilities, and enough left over for beer and videogames without feeling like I was spending every minute of my life there.

    then at another walmart, i was cashier, it was horrible, they were very stric and I was threatened with firing over the slightest thing.
    so it all depends on wich walmarts from what I all run differently

  161. This article and exercise seems so bias, I am wondering if you are not maybe in the pay of Walmart to covert Hipster Intellectuals.

    My cousin worked at Walmart and while she did not complain per say- the things she told me about here experience made me angry. Like having to work often as a checker, but not getting paid the high wage that this position earned because in the words of her supervisor “she was just subbing”. It broke my heart to listen to her take crap and not even know that it was crap. This is why unions exist- to our chins up.

  162. When Ehrenreich was working at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, I was still writing resumes. From 1990 thru the early 2000s I wrote over 7,000 resumes, curriculum vitae, postal, state and federal application forms. Mr. Platt, to put it succinctly, is full of it.

    I did my homework. Ehrenreich was about 49-50 when she did her stint at Wal-Mart. Mr. Platt was 25 when he came to the U.S. and worked as a messenger. These are two very different things.

    Mr. Shepard also “cheated” when he “debunked” Ehrenreich’s book. Shepard got ahead by working as a furniture mover. Only a young healthy man can do that kind of work, and it’s not something you make a career out of.

    Neither Platt or Shepard’s experiences in any way invalidate Ehrenreich’s book. Much of Ehrenreich’s research was to show how hard the economy is on women. Platt and Shepard choose to ignore her premise, and reinvent it so they can beat her at their own game.

    Old white men are often treated nicely because supervisors figure they’ve been humbled considerably already. Old women aren’t as lucky.

    This really is one of the most disgusting and thoroughly bogus posts I’ve ever read at Boing Boing. I read Platt’s books when I was young and had never had a single critical thought about him until now. It’s disappointing to learn what a snobbish jackass he is.

  163. That was decidedly not the experience that my husband had as a Walmart employee when he was forced to work there after his small business was affected by the current economic depression.

    Yes, he went through orientation, where what the company expects was thoroughly explained. But the store where he worked rarely adhered to policies. He, like the writer, studied various topics on the computer in the back of the store, but he never got increases in his hourly wage for doing so—and was never told that he would. He was repeatedly told by supervisors to disregard this or that store policy. He was chastised for trying to clean up the messes that a few piggish employees perpetually made in the back room, where he worked.

    He was not encouraged at all to make decisions about inventory. In fact, whenever he made polite suggestions for ways to improve storage of stock
    in the back room (such as not leaving stacks of chocolates stored in the garden center, which had no roof and no solid walls, thus exposing them to the elements), he was in effect encouraged to shut up. He was also placed in the middle of control wars waged by one level of supervisors against another: One supervisor would have him haul half-ton pallets of stock out onto the floor for later placement on shelves; moments later, another supervisor would rescind that order and he’d have to move the behemoths back to the back room. This went on for many nights each week.

    Whenever he put in extra effort, which was most of the time because he operates that way, he was rarely thanked. Instead he was expected to do more and more work in less time. He was often expected to work overtime, but then he would be told that he had to cut back his hours because overtime pay wasn’t authorized. Yeah, he found it a delightful, inspiring place to work. Not.

    Maybe the management at the store where the writer worked found out that he was a writer and so made sure that he had only pleasant experiences to report.

  164. I’ve never worked at WalMart or any retail store remotely like it, and so can’t really comment knowledgeably.

    However, I can make a few comments about unions.

    I am the first man in my family in three generations who never worked a blue-collar job in an Akron Ohio tire factory. It was at least partly due to the URW that my mom’s family was not homeless during the Great Depression.

    My dad worked his way through a business degree on the factory floor at Goodyear, and went into management, and a couple decades later was working for a mid-sized manufacturing company when he was beaten up in a parking lot by UAW goons who were trying to organize his employer.

    I did work a blue collar job at a machine shop during the summer of 1976. This was the last really large non-union machine shop in the Cleveland area. So it was great for college kids like me who didn’t have a union card. And it was packed full of misfits – stoners, drunks, you name it. The place was named “Erickson Tool”, but we called it “Erickson School”, because a lot of people went to work there, stayed a couple of years learning the trade, and left when they were qualified enough to get a union card and make better money.

    One guy was working a second job because he was supporting two infant children, one with his wife and one with his girlfriend. Another guy quietly told me he was a fugitive working under an assumed name. A gal came in so stoned one day, she went through a half-shift wondering why her parts weren’t coming down to size, only to have her boss notice she hadn’t powered the machine on.

    It was a lot like working a factory job with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.

    We got paid crap compared to the union shops, but you know, we all had jobs. And if someone came in to work late or messed up once in a while, management looked the other way as long as nobody got hurt and it didn’t happen too often. Me, I was happy to have that job – I got paid a little better than my friends who were working at McDonald’s or Arby’s.

    About the time I left to go back to college, the IBEW was trying to organize the place. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and was glad I was leaving because I didn’t really have to take a position.

    But I’ll bet if the union got voted in, within a year, all the stoners and drunks and college students and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were all out the door, because past a certain wage level, you can’t keep the artists and crazies on payroll any more – you have to replace them with people who are steady. And I’m sure it was no longer “Erickson School”, so I don’t know where you would go to learn enough to get a union card after that (unless you had a relative with an in at the union).

    Are unions a good thing? Sometimes they are – I think WalMart needs to be unionized, for instance, and I’m all for the IWW organizing Starbucks. But sometimes they beat up your dad. And sometimes they cost your friends their jobs. It’s not simple.

  165. Was there any effort made to get comment from Ehrenreich in response to these criticisms?

    This is journalism, right?

  166. #149 Merlin Silk,

    You need to distinguish justified claims of justice with “complaints”.

    The case for justice is simple: no individual, no matter how hard working, deserves 3 (or 5, 10, 100, 1000 …) times as much as any other full time working person in wage. That flows from basic human moral equality coupled with an adequately informed measure of desert. After discounting non-deserved circumstances the difference in desert among working people is never so great.

    Yet enormous economic differences dominates the US. There is and has never been a defence for that injustice. There is just lots of privileged folks getting away with it due to their positions of power. Making up bad excuses and cynical comebacks, like you just did.

  167. Charles Platt @ 18: Ehrenreich insisted on various niceties which were simply not practical, and she then complained about this. In particular, she insisted on living in a place of her own, paying the rent all herself.

    So what happens when you already have an apartment of your own and are stuck with a lease, or you own a home you can’t easily sell immediately? Maybe the apartment isn’t big enough for two people, or your apartment or home already has two people in it and you can’t fit three. Maybe you were making decent money at your old job, but you get downsized, and now you work at Wal-Mart, and you have to pay your rent/mortgage and other bills on those Wal-Mart wages. Assume that if anyone lives with you, their wages didn’t get adjusted upward when yours went down.

    This is reality for a sizeable number of people. Now please explain to me what someone in that situation is supposed to do, or how you consider Wal-Mart wages sufficient to support oneself on. Maybe they’re sufficient for a teenager working after school, or a college student working over summer vacation, or maybe even a young post-college adult living with his or her parents and working there while waiting for a job to open up in the field he or she studied. But for a middle-aged person with bills and obligations and maybe even a family to support? Not so much.

    I wonder what percentage of your WalMart co-workers were teenagers and twentysomethings, and how many fell into the category of mature adults with baggage that could not easily be shed and exchanged for a piece of foam on the floor in someone else’s apartment?

  168. Aelfscine @ 33:
    My experience in offices was me asking to help out in ways that would save them money and them saying ‘Actually, we just want you to pull staples out of paper all day.’

    If there’s anyone that’s useless in the American workforce, it’s the educated man or woman.

    They’re direly needed, of course, but damned if anyone’ll pay you to be one.

    Amen. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt in more sizes and colors than I know what to do with.

  169. Morningstar @ 69: If you can’t survive on the money you make, then (wait for it…) get a better paying job.

    Simple.

    You know, I think most people really wish it were that easy. It isn’t.

    Can’t get a better paying job becuase:
    (a) thats the best in your area: then MOVE elsewhere

    I’m about to tell you something you probably aren’t aware of: Moving costs MONEY. When you don’t have the money to move, you can’t do it.

    (b) you don’t have necessary skills/education: then learn/go to school/better-yourself and get another job

    Right, because if you already aren’t making enough money to live on, coming up with extra money to spend on school is easy. And when you’re already working a combined sixty hours a week at two jobs just trying to make ends meet despite the fact that they don’t, finding time to go to school is easy to.

    What color is the sky in your world, anyway?

  170. It’s all about the extremes that are around these days the Elite few who earn billions each year while others have to scrape through on a poor wage.

    How are people ever supposed to better themselves when they are always giving the minimum amount?

    A lot of people on here seem to think that it’s OK for people to have to struggle while the fat cat bosses rake in more and more every year and screw suppliers for every penny they can.

    Just take this current climate, is it the people at the top who have created this mess who are struggling to survive?

    It’s about time that these elite few was taxed more so that there is better Education, better Health care and better social security for a better society.

    He asked why the Unions are targeting Wal-Mart; of course they are going to target the biggest companies as it trickles down to everyone. They are hardly going to target a corner shop now are they?

  171. It’s all about the extremes that are around these days the Elite few who earn billions each year while others have to scrape through on a poor wage.

    How are people ever supposed to better themselves when they are always giving the minimum amount?

    A lot of people on here seem to think that it’s OK for people to have to struggle while the fat cat bosses rake in more and more every year and screw suppliers for every penny they can.

    Just take this current climate, is it the people at the top who have created this mess who are struggling to survive?

    It’s about time that these elite few was taxed more so that there is better Education, better Health care and better social security for a better society.

    He asked why the Unions are targeting Wal-Mart; of course they are going to target the biggest companies as it trickles down to everyone. They are hardly going to target a corner shop now are they?

  172. @ #109 POSTED BY MUDIL
    > WOW! WOW! WOW! The first sane post on BB ,
    > probably ever. Thanks, Mr. Platt!

    I guess you didn’t read all the way down to the last paragraph where he condones the rape of unicorns.

    @ #107 POSTED BY DUCKY
    > Now I make ass loads of cash.

    Ducky, can I borrow some money? Please leave your email and I’ll contact you ASAP.

    @#92 POSTED BY VETTEKAAS
    > 1. Wal-Mart is not evil; it’s the system that allows
    > Wal-Mart to exist that is evil.

    A serial killer is not evil; it’s the system that allows vans to exist that is evil.

  173. I’m so glad my employer isn’t like that! I’m working with Wal Mart right now, and became a huge fan of poverty. I especially like the instant ramen and Michaelinas. It’s awesome!

  174. @Simon Cameron

    “This I simply do not believe. Mr. Platt was expressing an opinion which happened to be different then your own. This does not mean he is writing in bad faith.”

    This is not simply a difference of opinion. If Mr. Platt had simply blogged about his feelings regarding Unions and Ms. Ehrenreich, I would have disagreed with him. However, by engaging in this exercise of working at Wal-mart, he attempted to cloak his efforts and his biased opinion in a veil of impartiality.

    Mr. Platt clearly dislikes Unions and Ms. Ehrenreich and went seeking employment with Wal-mart for the specific goal of cherry-picking evidence which which to criticize them.

    Mr. Platt portrays his endeavor as something of a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of claims made in Nickel and Dimed, by Ms. Ehrenreich. He implicitly claims that he will seek the “truth” in an objective manner and inform people of the information gathered on this endeavor.

    However, over the course of the article, his real agenda is revealed, in particular, by the ludicrous claim that Unions only pay attention to Wal-mart because they hope to get more dues paying members.

    This claim demonstrates that he was not attempting to learn about Wal-mart and their practices in an open-minded manner. He was going in with a particular agenda and seeking information to disparage Ms. Ehrenreich and Unions.

    I believe that this cherry-picking of information and the misleading way that his “experiment” was portrayed demonstrate that the overall process was undertaken in bad faith.

  175. “That flows from basic human moral equality coupled with an adequately informed measure of desert,”

    he explained.

  176. Mr. Platt:

    Interesting article, both for its substance and the invective directed toward you in the comments.

    A few questions:

    Were you given access to the room where WalMart keeps the employee family members being held hostage to force the employees to work there?

    Where does WalMart keep the trucks, etc. they use when they venture out to kidnap people and force them into involuntary servitude?

    What does WalMart use to force customers into the store – tasers or water cannons?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  177. Where has Mr. Platt gone? He needs to address many many questions posed here.

    Is he off again touring Japan on a whim, making more sweeping, uninformed observations based on cursory dabbling?

    What sort of upbringing did you have that allowed such an life, unencumbered by responsibility, Mr. Platt? Was your college education paid for by your father, a GM employee (as you mention in a previous BB posting) who presumably benefited from the evil unions? Were the childhood trips to the dentist and doctor paid for by the insurance secured by those unions?

    We don’t all have the same starting line. The playing field is hardly even. We need a safety net, not only for our adult population who is arguably fully responsible, but more importantly for children who are not. Unions, for all their corruption, did more to secure the crappy net we have than any other source.

    One more point: it is irresponsible to equate the economy with the natural world. Nature is, if nothing else, immoral, viscious, and Machiavellian in the extreme. Nature has much to teach man, but social Darwinism is a bankrupt idea.

  178. Where has Mr. Platt gone? He needs to address many many questions posed here.

    I’m guessing he’s composing a post about a really, really cool case mod.

  179. Mod note: I got to the pending bin late today, so there’s a lot of renumbering due to newly approved anonymous comments. My apologies if your numerical references are now incorrect.

  180. My dad worked as a manager for wal-mart for many years. I don’t know if this is mentioned in Nickel and Dimed, but one of the ways they mistreat employees is by making as many people as they possibly can work part-time. By doing this they don’t have to provide the part timers with insurance benefits.

    One way in which his wal-mart specifically mistreated employees was by putting mechanisms on all the shopping carts that lock the wheels on the cart when they are removed from the parking lot. Many customers still managed to drag the carts across the next door busy highway and leave them there. The cart boys are sent out to retrieve these carts with a key that temporarily unlocks the wheels for about 30 seconds while the carts are outside the wal-mart perimeter. After 30 seconds if the cart is still outside the wheel again locks. The problem with this is that the wheels lock when the cart boys are only half way back across the highway, somewhat stranding them in the middle of the road where they can either run off and leave the cart to get hit by a car, spend time unlocking the wheel again and leaving themselves vulnerable to traffic, or trying to drag the locked cart back to wal-mart, which greatly slows them down and also makes them vulnerable.

    Another stupid thing that wal-marts do is throw away thousands and thousands worth of dollars of perfectly good merchandise every month that could be donated instead.

    There are many other idiotic things that wal-mart does, both against the employees and the merchandise, just ask my pops.

  181. #143 TharkLord – brilliant!

    The original post is like listening to some over privileged 18 year old with a temporary gap year job in a coffee shop pontificating about how the unemployed should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

  182. Great story! As much as I don’t like Walmart, it’s really cool to see someone actually get a job there, and say what it’s like rather than an outsider giving their bias opinion.

  183. “denunciations of the free market”

    Umm, one of the fundamental precepts of neoclassical economics (the basic religion of the free market: “Our market which art in equilibrium, hallowed be thy name, thy will be done, as thy invisible hand fondles us”) is that corporations big enough to effect the market are absolutely harmful to it (how could they not be? Free doesn’t just mean free from unions and the state, it means free of ANY organisation big enough to have undue influence on it – monopolies, monopsonies, oligopolies… all bad, ok yah?), and generally blamed on the result of government intervention.

    Not my opinion (I think the post-autistic economics movement is rather more rational and interesting), but an article splooging for the holy Free Market would be helped by showing at least some understanding of it, and its precepts.

    You can’t just go and work at Walmart for a couple of weeks and then pronounce from upon high. Even Charles Dickens took longer way than that ooop North researching Hard Times, and still never really scratched the surface. Personal anecdotes and cheap ad-hominems do not research make. Populist Daily Mail churnalism for sure, but not science.

    Sure any given individual may be able to make it, with hard work, and an upbringing sufficient that they can write a book about it. But can all individuals? Only the worthy? Can individuals who aren’t just poverty-tourists, slumming it in order to write books and articles, that have damn all relevance to the people they are writing about and exploiting maury povich style?

    Point scoring is easy, understanding is hard. I wonder why people always go for the former.

  184. Right. Wal-Mart is a great place to work. That’s why, every time Boing Boing runs an entry critical of Wal-Mart, we get hit with some of least subtle astroturfing I’ve seen in all my years online. (Wal-Mart, I am seriously ticked about that. Tell your PR people to knock it off.)

    Note that I am not saying Charles Platt is an astroturfer for Wal-Mart, or that he is in any other way corrupt. I hope I know better than that. I’m not sure what would happen to someone who tried to bribe Platt, but I have faith that it would be bad. Also, he’s just plain flat-out entitled to his views, and that’s that.

    All I’m saying is that if I were looking for an example of a capitalist enterprise succeeding via competition in the open market, Wal-Mart’s not who I’d pick. IMO, they’re an example of that other pattern, where companies that become big and successful use their power to try to get rid of that pesky level playing field.

    The reason so many public-interest groups target Wal-Mart is that they’re experts at shifting their costs onto other payers (taxpayers, mostly), and pressuring local authorities into giving them tax abatements and other subsidies. (Quick summary version.) It’s not what I’d imagine Howard Roark doing.

    Cicada @10, Wegman’s and Costco both have good reputations.

    Cicada again @56:

    Being sane, not addicted to drugs, and without kids is “rigging the game”?

    Say rather that being single, in good health, effectively childless, and otherwise unattached, not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and having reliable transportation, orderly finances, and a place to live that’s not a constant source of stress, doesn’t recreate the full experience of being poor in America.

    Kaden @66, feel free to expand on that.

    Morningstar @69, I take it you’ve never had to put that into practice. It’s not nearly as simple as you think.

    A_B @76, I’d be happy to let you make exactly the same points if you would scale back the adjectives.

    Baldhead @99, that’s extremely unrealistic. If you aren’t aware of the basic fact that in many parts of the country it’s impossible to live and work without a car, you don’t understand the situation.

  185. OK,granted they couldn’t bribe Charlie, but what if they kidnapped his puppy and put a gun to its head?

  186. I’ve worked minimum wage. Conditions did vary, and I could believe that Platt merely had a better experience than I did.

    But this? Is fiction. It’s so alien to any minimum wage experience I’ve ever had, or any experience of anyone I’ve ever known has had, Wal-Mart or elsewhere, that it’s impossible to believe.

    I don’t even think it can be blamed on his race, class, or gender, because he and I share all three.

    Were I to guess, I’d say that Wal-Mart tagged him as a journalist, offered him the Potemkin tour, and his obvious ideological biases did the rest.

    I’d feel worse about thinking that if, you know, Platt hadn’t accused Ehrenreich – not to mention those actual workers who’ve successfully sued Wal-Mart for its violations of labor law – of lying.

  187. Yeah, this definitely was not my experience working for wal-mart corp. Although, I worked at a Sam’s Club. Employees were treated terrible, some being told to quit Sam’s or quit college. Laborers who stuck their heads down got the promotions over time, and those that worked extra hard were fired or pressured to leave. Management wanted nothing to do with employees. The grassroots policy system ignored any possible changes and instead was filled with sycophantic banter. I’m glad you’re wal-mart experience was better, but perhaps you received special treatment, as I’m sure management knew of your status as a professional blogger.

  188. “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.”

    That’s because they keep getting sued (and losing).

  189. I am mayor of a small, fast growing city in the Intermountain West. Walmart is opening a Super Center here next month. During a public hearing for their site plan approval, one resident reported that he had been very opposed to Walmart’s arrival for all the usual reasons — destruction of the local economy, oppression of workers, unfair competition, etc. Before the public hearing, he went to a Walmart 12 miles away and interviewed about 40 employees. He said only 1 was dissatisfied with her/his job, and that the rest were quite satisfied with Walmart as an employer. He told us that the objections he had freely shared with us via email before the meeting were now satisfied and he no longer opposed the project, except to caution us not to let Walmart get special treatment.

    As a municipality we did not provide any special incentives for Walmart — beyond access to a fast growing market with little competition in the immediate area. Walmart threatened to end the project a couple of times because of our insistence on their conforming to our architectural standards and our requiring up-front investment in off-site water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure (some of their off-site investment will be reimbursed as impact fees are collected from future beneficiaries of those improvements — a policy we apply to every developer in the city). We have not cut them a tax break of any kind. Our experience has been quite positive, and Walmart has been a good development partner. We look forward to having employment opportunities for our residents.

  190. About seven years ago my wife worked for a few months at a Wal-Mart – lean times and we needed the money.

    Her experience echoed Mr. Platt’s. It’s not the best job, but you are paid a fair wage and she did have the opportunity for advancement.

  191. @#216 POSTED BY TECHER IN TEXAS

    CowTip: Alter the help wanted sign to include, “Average pay $20/hour including tips”. You will no longer be short of drivers. Maybe also mention that the gas/mileage is covered.

  192. You’re an educated white english-speaking american dude. These factors shape how you are treated and what options you have. I don’t think your experience is ever going to be directly comparable to that of anyone who’s not privileged in those ways.

  193. it’s really cool to see someone actually get a job there, and say what it’s like rather than an outsider giving their bias opinion.

    So instead we get a momentary insider’s biased opinion!

  194. librul, #184: Thanks for the informative explanation and de-mything of the Adam Shepard story.

    In particular, I’d like the echo the comment about how he crowed about buying a used car: Yes, many people can scrape together $1000 to buy a used car from the junk dealership. The trouble is keeping that car for 5-10 years. You can easily end up paying much more than someone who had the capital and income to buy a $10,000 refurbished used car.

    This merely exemplifies the problem of poverty “tourism.” As people have said above, working at a low-income job for 5-10 months, while continuously have a safety-net (and possibly health insurance, a car and a house — Platt doesn’t say) doesn’t actually give you the right to speak from the perspective of someone actually earning minimum wage (and possibly supporting a family on it). Naturally, Ehrenreich is as guilty of that as Platt and Shepard (although Ehrenreich’s two years make her study a little more informative…).

  195. Prtqn wrt:
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  196. @#6: Riptide Reo:

    “As it happens, I was injured on the job, thanks to the horrendously slippery floors. I don’t care if you have the best-soled shoes in the world, an inch-thick layer of grease will knock you on your butt.”

    Tell the truth now, please. You weren’t responsible for keeping your work area clean?

  197. Two points:

    1) Those responders who seem to think that commenters with degrees etc. who take retail jobs are somehow being coy or disingenuous about their “advantages” must not have humanities degrees.

    At age 52, with an English Ph.D. and Masters and 18 years of college teaching adjunct experience (paying less than Wal-Mart, by the way), I took a job making sandwiches at a local coffee shop for $9 an hour. I wasn’t “slumming”; I needed a job and that was the only one around. No benefits, of course.

    Now, employment at these places is volatile. I did see people get fired, some unfairly, but most because they lacked maturity and/or good work habits. But I could have stayed as long as I wanted, because I showed up on time, did any work that was asked of me, learned quickly and didn’t complain. I have no doubt I could have been a manager if I had stayed.

    Whatever “advantages” I had came from work ethic and attitude, not my education (about which my employer could not have cared less).

  198. Cow:

    OK – “small businesses” who try to compete with WalMart fail.

    Businesses fail every day. Do you propose a national program which props up every business, which makes it impossible for any business to fail?

    Good luck with that.

    Generally speaking, when a business fails it’s because its customers decide to take their business elsewhere. Why do customers do that? Better price, more selection, more convenience … the reasons are as varied as the consumers themselves.

    Do you believe consumers who shop at WalMart should be denied that right in order to prop up the mom & pop’s?

    The premise of so many of these comments is that consumers who shop & the people who work at WalMart are idiots in need of protection from their betters. Strikes me as incredibly arrogant.

  199. The comments (sometimes vehemently) reflect the crux of our political divide in the USA – “How best do we care for the poor?” Is it Wal-mart’s responsibility (Big Business)? The government? Nongovernment organizations?

    I don’t think that is what government is for…but noone else is getting it done.

    I think it comes back to proper education & stable, supportive family units to help counteract the poverty-cycle.

  200. Why is everyone obsessing that Mr. Platt is white? As I’m sure everyone is aware, there are a lot of white failures out there; skin color doesn’t guarantee success. There are also millions of successful Americans of various ethnic minorities. Barak and Michelle Obama anyone? Michelle Obama, in particular, made more money in her job than I can ever dream of earning, but I don’t begrudge her that.

    In today’s age, success has more to do with attitude, choices and work ethic. You’re as ghetto as you think you are.

  201. Mr. Platt, sometimes it’s important to tell people that water is wet. Write a book, and add some more experiences.

  202. MTLP @215, whoever heard of a real mayor who wouldn’t identify his town?

    …I did some poking around. Unless I’m mistaken, you are the “mayor” of what appears — to me, at least — to be a sprawling, disjunct string of leapfrogging housing developments that are still under construction. You’re lobbying to re-route the established highway and development plans in your region on the basis of what the population of your area will be “on buildout,” which is a real-estate developer’s term for the total amount and location of potential development for an area. This lobbying isn’t sitting well with the older, more cohesive, and more civic-minded small city nearby. That city has taxed itself and built the school, library, parks, and recreation programs used by the residents of your developments. It also has a commercial main street, and a big-box shopping district. I do have to wonder why, if that’s not too far for your citizenry to drive to use the school and library and parks, they can’t do their shopping there as well.

    I’m a little hazy on the details of the proposed route. Are you really lobbying your state government to drive a highway straight across the next town over, through residential neighborhoods all the way, in order to connect with an arterial road of the next town after that? And doesn’t that hookup happen right about where there’s already an existing Wal-Mart Supercenter, less than twenty miles from what Google Maps identifies as the center of your own settlement?

    Please let me know if I’ve got any of that wrong. I only have the information that’s available on the web, and I wouldn’t want to misrepresent the situation.

    Now: You were saying you get along well with Wal-Mart? Do please go on.

  203. Yes actually, I have heard of Adam Shephard. What you neglected to mention about this kid playing homeless for a year is that he has a college education, paid for by his parents.

    Actually he attended college on a basketball scholarship.

  204. I’ve sold products to Walmart for almost a decade. Never once was I told to 86 quality for a lower price. I have had a absolutely amiable & mutually beneficial relationship with this machine of a company.

    From a quality & human ethics point-of-view (speaking strictly on the side of the factories, as I have never worked for them), Walmart factory standards are internationally recognized as the most difficult to pass of any retailer in the United States.

    I really appreciate the author taking the chance to see what the situation really is-first person-and writing about it.

    It is unfortunate that small businesses can’t compete with Walmart’s prices. But this is the nature of business. Survival of the fittest. Walmart has found a model that works-for its customer base. Because of Walmart’s low prices, people that would not be able to buy computers, cell phones, televisions CAN.

    Does Walmart have serious problems? Of course. Are there people that have sued & justly won cases against Walmart? Absolutely.

    Every company has scandals & examples of individuals who abuse power. This does not mean the foundation is broken.

  205. First let me say this. Trade unions and labor unions are two different things. Trade unions represent skilled craftsmen. Labor unions represent unskilled workers. Trade unions have a natural leverage in bargaining with the market because it is not easy to find skilled craftsmen (craftspeople?). Labor unions on the other hand require some kind of force, law, or intimidation to obtain any leverage. Labor unions are the ones who want to unionize Wal-Mart. My father was a loyal union man and still is, even though his union—the United Paperworkers—drove his company out of business with an unnecessary strike. Because of that, his pension after 28 years of service is about $120 a month. Don’t tell me about how great unions are for the workers and their families. The money the unions distribute comes from the companies that employed them in the first place. If there’s no company, there’s no money. Labor unions have a natural tendency to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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  207. Interesting article. I thought Nickled and Dimed was a bit silly, kind of like Supersize Me (Yeah, going from vegan cooking to burgers IS dumb.), She did not make the sort of sensible decisions any person working at minimum wage would, like sharing housing. When I was starting out I shared a room in a shared house, the rent for a cheap house split 7 ways is not bad.

    What’s interesting in the comments is the sense that things used to be easier. I think we just expect more, and are more easily disappointed. We expect fairness, ease and comfort. (Nothing wrong with that.) We feel cheated if life is unfair, hard and our work is uncomfortable. Our grandparents would have regarded our expectations and the accompanying bitterness as debilitating. I know my grandparents were tougher than I am.
    Dennymack

  208. Woohoo: a modern version of Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid, then returning to her palace at night.

  209. #228: “I think it comes back to proper education & stable, supportive family units to help counteract the poverty-cycle.”

    And then, when every American has a college degree, health insurance will magically appear for everyone and their children, right?

    Look, we have a system set up that ties health insurance to employment. Meanwhile we have many employers that intentionally keep employees’ hours just below the minimum that would require that they supply health insurance. Wal Mart intentionally does this, and inreasingly so according to a JP Morgan report.

    Should employers be responsible for supplying health insurance? That’s a different argument, but they system in place is what it is, and it’s not Wal Mart’s position to decide if it’s fair or not.

    Meanwhile nearly TEN MILLION children — children, mind you — live without health insurance in America.

    As America’s largest employer, Wal Mart covers less than half of its employees. Those that are covered had to wait 6 months (FT) to a year (PT) for those benefits to kick in — double the national average for retailers. 27% of Wal Mart employees’ children are on Medicaid.

    I don’t want to clutter this post up with links, but this is all readily available from credible sources (NYT, WSJ) with a quick Google search.

    Where have you gone, Mr. Platt? You’re still posting on BB. Come back and stand up for yourself like a man. Answer the questions so many have posted here.

  210. I am no big fan of capitalism, but…

    It’s easy as hell without a college degree to make a good living in this country.

    All you have to do is be responsible, show up, and apply yourself.

    Places like Wal-Mart take people who got off on the wrong foot and give them a way to move up.

    Yeah, we all dislike the appearance of the corporate state… but what gives it its power is the incompetence of most people. Of course they complain — what else are they going to do, admit their own fault in the matter?

    We like to think there are flawless workers versus soulless corporations, but reality is much more complex, starting with the fact that anyone who even marginally has their act together is going to do well in the USA.

  211. Look at pictures of Civil War reenactors. Specifically, look at their faces. Compare that to the faces in pictures of real Civil War soldiers.

    The contrast between Platt’s face and the woman’s behind him is something like that.

  212. Hw rfrshng t hr ths thr sd f th Wl-Mrt stry, t fts wth my wn xprncs.

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    Thr’s nd fr ths phnmnn, ths Wl-Mrt. t’s gd thng.

  213. So let me get this straight. Barbara Ehrenreich’s claim is that you can’t survive on a Walmart salary. You rebuked this by saying that Walmart has friendly management and a liberal dress code.

    You have completely missed the point here, whether accidentally or willfully. The only place you actually touch on the question of pay is where you note that workers can increase their wage with training courses, but as has already been noted, you neither state the amount of the increase or if this policy even existed when Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her book. Mr. Pratt, you completely failed to address the argument you claim to have disproved.

    And for everyone who seems to think some people aren’t forced to try survive by working at Walmart, I’d like to know which reality they live in, because it sure as hell isn’t the one I know.

  214. Mr. Prtt, thnk tht yr sspcns bt Brbr hrnrch’s jrnlstc stnc bng lss thn bjctv wr crrct. n hr wn wrds: “Ppl smtms sk hw n cn b n bjctv jrnlst s wll s n ctvst, bt mst f th wrtng hv dn hs bn f th pnntd vrty nywy.”

    try t sty wy frm psd-rsrch lk hrs. t’s ftn trmpd-p mss f “w s m” ncdts. Sh s wlcm t prs hr pltcl ctvsm nd scl chng gnd – chs nt t wst my tm rdng t.

  215. Why did my post not show up? Someone commented on my post, #216, even quoted it, but my OP is not listed, and not at 216. How did this happen?

    1. Techer,

      A number of readers seemed to feel that you were spamming us with Help Wanted ads.

  216. Bygollymolly @235, Ken in SC @236, Carol @243, how lovely to see you all finally got here. Welcome to Boing Boing. TetonCowgirl @247, welcome to you as well.

    How’s Medra, by the way? I haven’t seen her in a while.

    Molly, I’m glad to hear there’s one domestic supplier who has an “absolutely amiable & mutually beneficial relationship” with Wal-Mart. What do you manufacture?

    Ken in SC, it’s so rare to see someone raised in a union household who can see past the specific concrete data and present the issues in such a simple and clear and simple fashion.

    Jim Treacher, good try, I really appreciate it, but we never repealed the rule against dragging political figures into threads where they don’t belong.

    Conservationist:

    It’s easy as hell without a college degree to make a good living in this country.

    All you have to do is be responsible, show up, and apply yourself.

    So what’s the matter with all those single moms out there who are constantly responsible, reliably show up, and not only apply themselves, but are working two or more jobs? How exactly are they screwing up?

    Carol, TetonCowgirl, I’m not fond of blanket ad hominem arguments, no matter who’s being dismissed. Carol, hang in there with the copywriting — you can only get better with practice.

    Anonymous @242, that’s damn near lyrical.

    Antinous: Granted! I could never do a decent sashay.

  217. Takuan, I’m still suspicious about that “have me for lunch someday” thing.

  218. Men are just naturally better at that glamor stuff. I think it’s because they invented it.

    Takuan, I’m holding out for Doc Martins, a black leather duster, a cricket bat, and a big box of gummed gold stars.

  219. can’t believe that so many people believe that they could “climb” the corporate ladder working in a friend’s mom and pop store. I’d guess the only room on the ladder for them is themselves or their kids.

    I wish you would write the book, Charles. You might be surprised. Lots of people would buy it.

    They love to demonize the big stores here in Poland as well, but I am unconvinced that working at the local corner store the size of a bedroom pays any better than working at a larger chain store that people love to demonize.

    Many love to complain about how poor they are but can’t seem to realize that their decisions about how they act in life (smoking, drinking, drugs, out of control sex) affect their financial lives. They want everything without sacrificing. Then, they complain when they can’t have it all.

    A friend was complaining to my sis how she doesn’t see how she can afford her expensive vacation. My sis pointed out that her friend was “sitting in her vacation” as she sat in her new pickup.

    I’d love to think that all the people here ranting about how bad Walmart is back it up with actions–don’t shop at Walmart and certainly skip all the chain stores while you are at it. (They are probably all similar–Walmart gets the rap cuz it’s the biggest–it’s the way of the jealous–try to pull down the top guy.)

  220. I haven’t read all of the comments, but I felt the need to say something because of some people’s comments about Adam Shepherd’s book.

    I’ve read both Nickel and Dimed and Scratch Beginnings.

    Yes, Adam Shepherd had a college education. However, like Ehrenreich, he failed to mention this to any potential employers. He started out in a new city with $25 cash and lived in a homeless shelter until he was able to afford to live on his own.

    What’s interesting about Shepherd’s story isn’t just what he writes about himself. He also writes about the people around him and their lives. Of course he couldn’t have captured what their experiences were like, but he offered outsiders a glimpse. And here’s what makes his “you can make it” message significant – it wasn’t just the secretly college-educated white boy who was able to make it. Some (though not all) of the people around him were making similar progress. He sheds light on what was necessary to make that happen, both for him and for his companions.

    One thing that was absent from Shepherd’s book: women. It doesn’t get into what his experience would have been like for a woman. On the other hand, that’s not what he experienced. In leaving it out blatantly, he didn’t claim to know more than his own experiences.

    The reason Adam Shepherd’s book didn’t sell? Shepherd didn’t have Ehrenreich’s literary connections or knowledge of the industry, so he wasn’t as successful in terms of selling and promoting the book. Also, in my opinion, the cover design is cheap, making the whole book seem cheaply made — which may have been a factor in reducing sales, OR it could simply be indicative of the sub-par publishing house he used and the house’s lack of attention to Shepherd’s project.

    Please note: I’m not taking a side in the main argument. I’m just clarifying what Shepherd’s book is -and ISN’T- about.

    Hope somebody reads this post and thinks twice about bashing a book they haven’t read!

  221. Anonymous (Dennymack), 238: She did not make the sort of sensible decisions any person working at minimum wage would, like sharing housing.

    “Honey, I’ve got bad news: they’re downsizing at the mill, and I’m getting laid off. The good news is that I managed to land a job at WalMart. The worst news is that I’m going to have to move out and go share a house with six other guys who all work at either WalMart or McDonald’s. But I’m sure you and the kids will be just fine… what, the mortgage? Oh, crap…”

  222. @263 Summer and everyone who’s mentioned kids and a mortgage…

    If you worked at a mill, or factory, or any other manufacturing job, (and even most people who work in “professions”), you never really could afford kids or a house to begin with. You overreached, and you’ll pay dearly for it.

    Not everyone is entitled to a house and a family of their own. It’s just not in the cards.

    Likewise, most people working at the mill or at Walmart are the products of stupid parents who also had children they couldn’t truly afford.

    Of course, we also live in a society that largely believes in angels and a personal God that will “somehow get us through this and everything will ultimately work out”. (In this sense, I am sympathetic to the rhetorical assertion that many people suck at “enlightened self-interest” necessary for a libertarian society.)

  223. If you worked at a mill, or factory, or any other manufacturing job, (and even most people who work in “professions”), you never really could afford kids or a house to begin with.

    Oh, turns out reality is a lie then..

    I get your point, but it isn’t true.

  224. Summer, serious as cancer.

    Kids are expensive. They’re a luxury few can afford, like owning a yacht.

    So what’s the matter with all those single moms out there who are constantly responsible, reliably show up, and not only apply themselves, but are working two or more jobs? How exactly are they screwing up?

    It’s the demands of motherhood causing them to screw up.

    I’m pro-choice, but in my not-so-humble opinion, they should have had an abortion instead.

  225. I am quite amused by this experiment and by many people’s reaction.

    It seems I and many others have been living wrong the entire time. By having an education and my own home before having children, my life should be just peachy keen thanks to Wal*Mart! It is only my own fault that the company I worked for closed down or that I have faced enormous medical issues since then.

    Shame on me and hurrah for Wal*Mart!

  226. If the bad outweighs the good, the good becomes something else. This is certainly a different perspective that seems very honest; but it is easy for someone to make a compelling argument against Wal-Mart and find concurrence. On the other hand, this guy seems intelligent and may be familiar with the labors law and obviously knows a healthy work environment, and because of his education and background Wal-Mart is acting inconsistent with normal behavior.

    http://www.payscale.com/chart/89/Median-Hourly-Rate-by-Job—Employer-Wal-Mart-Stores-Inc-United-States_USD_20090201082806-v1.0.jpg

  227. Charles Platt said,

    The second-biggest sin might be to hurt yourself, since your reimbursed medical expenses will reduce the annual bonus for your coworkers.

    Sounds to me like the real sin there is in seeking medical attention…

  228. A disemvoweled commentor wrote:

    “Mr. Pltt wrt ths rtcl n bd fth.”

    I agree.

    Or, if you prefer, ” gr.”

  229. Oh, turns out reality is a lie then..

    For sake of argument, if you’re working at a manufacturing job and could afford kids, then you wouldn’t be working at a manufacturing job because you could afford education for a more advanced form of employment / income.

    What color is the sky in the world where kids are cheaper than college tuition?
    (Seeing as how the cost of kids includes college tuition for them.)

  230. Zuzu, you’re arguing from a rather eccentric definition of what it means to be able to afford kids. I daresay that college expenses aren’t necessarily in the equation when most people make the decision to have kids.

    In fact that seems like a classist assumption to me. Not all kids go to college. Not all parents can afford to send them. Some kids still work their way through school, rely on scholarships, take out cripplingly huge student loans.

    It would be nice if they didn’t have to, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the parents “really couldn’t afford to have kids” if what they couldn’t afford was to put them through college.

  231. It would be nice if they didn’t have to, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the parents “really couldn’t afford to have kids” if what they couldn’t afford was to put them through college.

    Yeah, it’s not like those things are causally related or anything. ::sarcasm::

  232. What about having kids as a pension plan?

    The popular belief that, at large, offspring will grow up to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents, is false.

  233. Zuzu, manufacturing jobs aren’t necessarily low-wage, nor are they necessarily non-“advanced”. I’ve been to college, and frankly, I couldn’t do some of the stuff that has to be done in a factory. Believe it or not, some of it’s actually pretty technical.

    Not only that, but somebody has to actually make the car you drive, the bus you ride, the train that delivers goods to the part of the country you live in and the truck that delivers them to the WalMart you shop at. And some of the consumer goods you buy are even still *gasp* made right here in the USA, rather than in some Chinese sweatshop. So moving everyone “up” to a non-manufacturing job would do what, exactly? In a society composed exclusively of investment fund managers and white-collar corporate execs, where would the everyday goods come from, and how would they get to where they need to go?

    I’m getting the impression you’ve never seen the inside of a factory, and have never actually known anyone who worked in one. And no, at this point nothing you say will convince me otherwise, because you’ve already made it clear how truly naive you are.

  234. Zuzu, are you really sitting there saying that lower-middle-class and poor people have no business having kids? Because that is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.

  235. Zu, not everyone chooses college, regardless of their success or pay grade.

    It sounds like you are saying that unless you go to college, you should’t have kids. Of course there is an implicit “so you can get a good enough job to feed them”, but I don’t think the world works like that.

    Circumstance is a great decider.

  236. On this topic. Read his (I think) comments on some other things, and they’re reasonably sane. But on this…well, ‘naïve’ doesn’t begin to cover it, but the other words I can think of have no vowels.

  237. Xopher, of course. I should probably have spelled out that I was referring to this topic specifically.

    And, agreed. I had to work with what I figured might pass muster.

  238. Zuzu, are you really sitting there saying that lower-middle-class and poor people have no business having kids? Because that is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.

    Why is it insane?

    Kids are expensive, and by definition “lower-middle-class and poor people” don’t have much wealth. Seems overtly simple to me: You cannot afford the things you cannot afford.

    It sounds like you are saying that unless you go to college, you should’t have kids. Of course there is an implicit “so you can get a good enough job to feed them”, but I don’t think the world works like that.

    I was oversimplying for sake of argument. I’m also deeply skeptical and critical of the college education system as a panacea for economic difficulty. (So, I’d agree that part of the social system doesn’t work; populism of undergraduate degrees has merely devalued the degree, and saddled millions of people with crushing debt due to the accompanying tuition inflation.) Expectation of high-paying employment due to college credentials (and starting a family in your 20s according to that expectation) is also part of the larger credit-based (i.e. future discounted) socio-economic catastrophe currently unwinding.

    A more accurate term would be knowledge work / highly technical and analytical skills.

    Or, you would win the lottery. The real rate-limiting factor is personal wealth.
    (i.e. You can have as many kids as you can afford. Just that for most people that number is zero, like it or not.)

  239. Don’t get me wrong, I find ZuZu entirely agreeable (or his posts, at least. I don’t know him other than that).

    I even agree with Takuans “walk the walk” assessment. I just don’t think you can judge others’ choices based on your own values in this regard. You can’t ever (in this casual setting) have enough information to do so accurately.

  240. Kids are expensive, and by definition “lower-middle-class and poor people” don’t have much wealth.

    So where on earth are all these “lower-middle-class and poor people” coming from? Seems they are getting on with reproducing themselves just fine, and living to tell the tale!

    /Rhetorical Dickery

    Read as: Since when is ‘upper middle class’ the economic threshold for having kids? Sounds arbitrary to me, based on the available evidence anyway.

  241. Children are the original Social Security. The more you have, the better you’re covered.

    Maybe if we were still an agrarian economy. Children were burdensome during the industrial economy. Now we’ve entered the information economy. That old heuristic hasn’t held true for at least 200 years.

    I just don’t think you can judge others’ choices based on your own values in this regard. You can’t ever (in this casual setting) have enough information to do so accurately.

    Fair enough. I’m personally aware of people who’ve suffered untimely death of the “bread winning” partner, or just an ugly yet unforeseen breakup, creating financially precarious single-parent situations.

    But those are the exceptions, and generally speaking that information is irrelevant. Most people have kids without considering that they are a lifestyle choice which must be afforded. That’s the tragedy. Which is why I’m very eager to hear an answer to my question of “Why (not)?” regarding:

    are you really sitting there saying that lower-middle-class and poor people have no business having kids?

    I would seriously appreciate someone explaining this “sense of entitlement” to me.

  242. Okay, time to stop the inanity, er, insanity.

    So, Zuzu, you’re saying that only the wealthy ought to reproduce. Explain, please, exactly how the economy would function in such a society. Suppose that somehow we made it so that from this day forward, nobody who wasn’t wealthy would have kids. In the next generation, where would goods and services come from? After all, somebody has to make them, and now the only people available to enter the work force are children of wealthy parents. Would the children of those wealthy folks take those jobs, and if so, at what pay scale? Would they have to be paid a quarter-million dollars a year to do them? Or would they be paid, say, 40k a year and be forbidden to breed? In either case, what do you think this would do to the economy, and to the society itself?

    You’ve made the proposal, now let’s watch you carry it out to its logical conclusion. I’ll make the popcorn.

  243. So where on earth are all these “lower-middle-class and poor people” coming from? Seems they are getting on with reproducing themselves just fine, and living to tell the tale!

    aka the cycle of poverty perpetuating itself.

  244. Ark, Zuzu just wants those classes to die out, presumably as a way of eradicating poverty.

    Or maybe he’s doing that weird thing where you make an ethical pronouncement that’s only viable if no one listens to it; in other words, it’s not an actual prescription for a better society, but just an excuse for blaming poor people (and their parents) for their own plight. That way, you see, it’s their own bad choices that put them in trouble, so no tax money should be used to help them, not just with education, but with medical care, getting out of New Orleans during a hurricane, etc.

    Smacks of Libertarianism to me, and I’ve had it up to HERE (points laser pointer at passing cloud) with Libertarians at the moment.

  245. Summer, what’s really scary is that what you’re saying is exactly what people who seek to exploit poverty to play “lord of the manner” think — which is why they increase the barriers to birth control and seek to expand the impoverished labor force.

    In other words, I read what you’re asking as “Without poor people, who will clean shit up? Who will do all the dangerous and disgusting work that I don’t want to do?”

    The short answer is that robots (i.e. automation) are already being phased in to replace all manual labor (both farming and manufacturing). The only reason this hasn’t already been achieved is because the perpetuance of poverty makes human beings cheaper than robots to “lease”. I’m making a value-judgement that this is a terrible state of affairs. (Just as Buckminster Fuller remarked the sad state of typewriters given shelter in offices while humans go homeless.) I don’t think it’s a false choice to turn that around and ask if you’re actually saying you’re in favor of poverty?

  246. it’s not an actual prescription for a better society, but just an excuse for blaming poor people (and their parents) for their own plight.

    No, I’m decidedly not one of those people who tries to argue “people get what they deserve”. (I think those people are called Objectivists.) But reality is created by the consequences of what happens — including human action.

    Ark, Zuzu just wants those classes to die out, presumably as a way of eradicating poverty.

    I’d couch it as: How about we don’t create new poverty? Let’s not create new people in a state of relative poverty; is that such a bad idea?

    Invoking “class” is kinda ridiculous though. Class is a government privilege construct, which does exist even in the USA without the formal rigidity of an outright caste system. But “class” is not merely an economic outcome. So using words and phrases such as “classist” and “middle-class” has no true basis in reality. “Class warfare” is a delusion, like belief in God or the great pumpkin.

  247. do people who have no realistic chance of properly caring for their children have the right to have children?

    What about mentally handicapped people that want to have children?

    Should people who can prove they have wealth be allowed to have as many children as they want?

    Should people with good survival quality genes be favored for having children over those with lesser genetic endowments?

    Is China’s one – child policy an atrocity? or a kindness if you consider what happens to surplus girl children in a poor farming village?

    Is a human in China or India lesser in some way than a human in say Switzerland?

    Is the purpose of humanity to fill the Earth and use up every single scrap of resource it has?

  248. Zuzu Maybe if we were still an agrarian economy. Children were burdensome during the industrial economy. Now we’ve entered the information economy. That old heuristic hasn’t held true for at least 200 years.

    I believe children could fit into the machinery better, and cost less to employ, for most of the last 200 years.

    Yeah, we outlawed their labor here about 100 years ago, but in much of the rest of the world their nimble fingers still put agrarian food, harvested by the children in the agrarian areas, on the factory-town tables.

    Poverty has much more to do with theft of rights and theft of profits by strongmen than it has to do with the evolution of man.

    This place we’ve apparently gotten to as a people, are you sure as many of us are there as you think? Do you suppose maybe you’re channeling the dreams of those who sip the cream off the top of the social milk-bottle?

  249. Zuzu, if that’s what you’re getting when you read me, then you’re reading me wrong. I really don’t foresee a society in which every bit of labor will be automated, while every living human being just sits around on his or her butt all day. It makes an interesting science fiction setting (for about five minutes) but I highly doubt it will ever become reality.

    And you know what? I really don’t consider someone making 40k or 50k or so to be living in poverty. I’m sorry to hear that you do.

    All of which begs the question of what people would do to earn a living in your imaginary world where all jobs are done by robots. Care to tackle that?

  250. Around ’84 / ’85, when all the famine ads were on the telly (mothers and babies, malnourished and covered in flies), I remember naively asking my mother why the Ethiopians kept on having more children. It seemed cruel to keep having more children who would inevitably share that fate, and counter-productive to the food vs mouths-to-feed ratio. My 7 year old brain thought the famine could be stopped if they just stopped having more kids.

    But then there would be no more Ethiopians.

    The correct answer was not to stop them having more babies, but for the world to step in and fix the situation, so they could continue as a part of the world.

    Now I understand this is 1) an extreme example, and 2) this example is about cultural identity rather than class.

    However, since when is it only wealthy people who have brilliant/successful children? Since when did the “made its” of today only come from the rich familes of yesterday?

  251. “I really don’t foresee a society in which every bit of labor will be automated, while every living human being just sits around on his or her butt all day”

    really? You haven’t been paying attention then. It is not natural limits, but social and political, that has kept exactly that scenario from coming to pass.

    This is my opinion,correct it if it wrong: Zuzu is not foolish or misinformed by any means. What he says is frequently unpalatable to first thoughts coupled with human emotion – but I have yet to find him wrong in terms of physical fact.

  252. All of which begs the question of what people would do to earn a living in your imaginary world where all jobs are done by robots. Care to tackle that?

    knowledge work

    aka “using your brain for a living” — which is unlikely to be automated until humans merge with artificial intelligence in the “singularity” or whatever.

    And you know what? I really don’t consider someone making 40k or 50k or so to be living in poverty. I’m sorry to hear that you do.

    Inprecision of words, but I do doubt that’s enough for more than the life Barbara Ehrenreich seemed to want — her own apartment, some amenities from IKEA / Target (e.g. furniture, TV), mobile phone service and internet access, and affordable access to healthcare and education, while still saving for retirement. Not enough to have kids on top of all that, though.

  253. 2) this example is about cultural identity rather than class.

    No, I can’t go with you there.

    I’d also argue that “cultural identity” is also delusional.

    There may be genetic, linguistic, or social-customary similarities between segments of Earth’s human population, but the problem is with that “identity” part. e.g. “Ethiopians”

    (Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy by Arjun Appadurai has basically the right idea, there.)

  254. Jumping into the fire here:

    I agree with Zuzu (not including the cultural identity delusion) and Takuan here.

    Yes What he says is frequently unpalatable to first thoughts coupled with human emotion .

    NO ONE is saying that someone should have to produce tax returns to receive sanction on procreation. What Zuzu is saying, and what I agree with, is that children cost money. Bringing children into a world in which you cannot feed them, clothe them, or house them is abuse, plain and simple.

    If you cannot afford to do this, don’t have them. If you live with your extended family, work two jobs, share expenses, pawn your stuff to buy a nice crib, keep costs low and then still need to stroke your narcissism by copying your genetic material, do it. But don’t get knocked up because you don’t want to use a damn condom.

    It’s really simple. I live the life I can afford. Everyone should do so. America’s economy is in the shitter because of credit. We are living beyond our means, and children are part of that.

    The Wal-Mart solution is a retroactive one- placing a band-aid on a bleeding stump. Single mothers are forced to work in shitty environments because they need to afford things they wouldn’t have to if they didn’t have kids to support. Family planning is the cure, not a shitton of $5/hr jobs.

  255. What Zuzu is saying, and what I agree with, is that children cost money. Bringing children into a world in which you cannot feed them, clothe them, or house them is abuse, plain and simple.

    Yeah, I agree with most of that too. I’d say everyone does at some level. But an arbitrary threshold of “lower-middle-class and poor people” doesn’t cut it.

  256. Poor women and men have kids because having kids doesn’t actually bring them down economically because their lives are already pretty crappy. So, why not have a kid who will love you (for a while at least) and provide you with a sense of purpose.

    Motherhood is often the only aspiration that poor women can actually achieve (given how hard it is to go to college or get a good job when you live in poverty.)

  257. Good grief, it’s like watching a train wreck around here.

    1. 40 – 50k is plenty to live on if one lives alone, provided one exercises some measure of thrift. You know, not getting an expensive new car every couple of years, not buying the largest and newest model of everything, and not trying to live high on the hog. I have single friends who manage just fine on that kind of money. Mind you, they don’t live in Manhattan, but you can get by on it in most parts of the Midwest.

    2. You can raise one or two kids without too much trouble around the 50k mark, provided either a) you have a spouse/partner or other family member who only works part-time while the kids are below school age, thus reducing/eliminating the need for expensive daycare, and you don’t give in to the kid’s demands for the latest and coolest of every fad item. No, you won’t be sending them to fancy private schools, and yes, they will probably need to take jobs when they are teenagers, as well as funding at least part of their own college education, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Education is often taken more seriously by students who have a financial stake in it than by those who are getting a free ride from Mommy and/or Daddy.

    3. Granted, raising kids is much harder for a single parent, regardless of income (except in cases where said parent’s income is sky-high).

    4. I do not buy for a single minute the idea that in a generation or two – heck, EVER – we will create a worldwide society in which nobody ever has to do any work that isn’t purely mental/intellectual. What’s more is that not every person is even suited to that type of work, and no, I do not mean by any flaw in their intelligence, character or motivation, but simply because there are people who actually PREFER to work with their hands. And you know what? There are some things that are just better-made when they are made by hand than when they are mass-produced by machinery. Not everything, no. But I would surely hate to see all skills for making items by hand be abandoned by the human race, even if we could supply all our needs through automation. It would be like losing a part of that which makes us the wonderful, multifaceted species that we are.

    And the people who prefer to do things by hand often use intellectual skills in doing so. This false dichotomy of “intellectual work” vs everything else is not a productive factor in the discussion.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to attend.

  258. And the libertarians come marching in again…

    Threadjack much, Zuzu?

    Xopher, Question: how many libertarians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: why does the lightbulb need to be changed? You can’t make me change anything! Only the weak need light anyway!

  259. Zuzu,

    The idea of people having fewer children is a lovely one. I’m just appalled that you’ve chosen to make economic criteria the basis for childbearing. Not particularly surprised, because you make economics the basis for everything. I propose that the only people who have children should be people who really like children and enjoy their company. That would solve the population problem in a single generation.

  260. If fertility were voluntary (i.e., requiring a conscious choice to turn it on)…well, the human race would probably die out, but never mind!

    RationalPragmatist Π: I always heard the answer to that one as “the market will take care of it.” In fact I had an adolescent libertarian try to tell me the market really would take care of it. “At this point I ceased arguing with Lt. Goforth and shot him in the belly.” Well, no, I didn’t shoot him, but I did wave my hands dismissively and go to another party.

  261. I know the subject of conversation has turned into who, what class, and how many – if any babies should be made by certain “groups” of the human race (I have my own comments as working in the health insurance industry, I have had people on medical assistance tell me they had a child to qualify for free health care. Without the child they wouldn’t qualify. If you were to get pregnant while on medical assistance you can have an elective abortion paid for in full. To qualify for free medical care as a women you need to have a child. If you decide to abort a second child it will be paid for. A minimalist government approach to population control. I could go on but I digress)

    I wanted to comment that I have a second job at Target. I’m trying to pay of my $40,000 in school loans and hopefully go to grad school. I’ve worked for other retail chains previously and when I was fed the line “Target is striving to be the best company ever” I thought it was a bunch of bull shit. However I have found that Target is the best company I have ever worked for, it terms of how it treats it’s employees. There is room for advancement, fair raises based on the performance of the employee, they are no just automatic. Target offers a 401k to it’s part time employees. They match dollar for dollar after you have worked 1000 hours. My full time job just started to match a percentage of my 401k after a year. It’s definitely not dollar for dollar. They offer huge discounts on cell phone contracts/phones with a certain company. The have discounts with certain mortgage, and car loan providers. They fully reimburse weight watchers if you decide to join. If you average 25 hours a week you earn vacation time. There are constant awards, and different “themed” days corporate wide that show employee appreciation. (such as breakfast day, we had free waffles, pancakes, sausage, juice, milk, cereal, breakfast sandwiches and water all day). You get to use your employee discount on top of sale and clearance items. They recognize employees with “great team member” cards and when you have so many of them you can trade them in for a free dvd, cd, etc.
    I’m still not over the fact that Target matches my 401k dollar for dollar and I only work their part time.

    So…As much as I enjoy listening to you yell at me because I won’t return the $500 dyson vacuum you have already used for a year, or the 42 inch flat screen tv you received as a gift and have no proof of purchase for, I’ll still stick with Target for just a bit longer.

  262. how much an hour?

    Come now, let us not dwell on such crude matters. He’s not doing it for the money, he’s doing it for the love of the craft!

  263. Maybe when you’re done parading your ignorance on BB you can go back to working at Walmart. I hear that Conde Nast is going to lay off more Wired staff anyway since the magazine has turned not profitable. Apply early, beat the rush.

  264. In regard to Adam Shepard; I don’t know how old Shepard was when he posed as a homeless man and “proved” anyone can make it in America, but I bet he was young, strong, and healthy.

    Heck, I did the same thing when I was 19 (except for posing as a homeless guy, which seems pointless to me but I suppose it added filler and drama to Mr. Shepard’s book).

    My point is, did Shepard ever need HEALTH INSURANCE? I bet not, nor did he have a family who needed it.

    What Shepard is stating is also the reason (healthy) illegal aliens can come to America, work their asses off (and they do) 5 or 6 guys/gals to an apartment, live on beans and tortillas for 20 years, then take home $60K to their native countries. However, if they get severely SICK or INJURED, all bets are OFF.

    Let’s see a book about THAT, Mr. Shepard.

  265. On having children one is unable to properly support on a low-paying job:

    Of COURSE common sense says to keep it in your pants or use a condom, but that is only PART of the big picture.

    Many cultures and many families believe in a large family unit with many children. They are raised this way. It is INGRAINED in their upbringing through church and family, and they ARE going to have at least 3 or 4 children.

    That said, I’m not saying this is ok or even politically correct, but it is fact, and it WILL remain so.

    The solution? Unless we want to follow China’s “paradigm” There isn’t one, as these folks will not listen to Planned Parenthood or take/heed sex education, nor will their clergy counsel them to have only 1 or 2 children rather than 4 or 5, thus the problem of families having children they cannot properly support WILL continue.

  266. Adam Shepherd is a fraud. he is white, well spoken, college educated. he has written a book about how external supports have been removed while discounting the only real support system that matters : class and race. sell it somewhere else.

  267. Charles, to do this with any semblance of integrity, you’d have to work at minimum wage for at least a year and live solely on your minimum wage income. You’d have to give up your car and your house/apartment and find a bed sit in some lousy neighborhood. All of your socialization would be constrained to acquaintances from your new job. You’d have to leave all your books at home, your CDs, your iPod. No broadband, no HDTV, no supportive family.

    His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.

    Lucky he wasn’t injured on the job or the victim of assault. I bet his education meant his landlord didn’t try to cheat him and his bosses didn’t try too hard to exploit him. Bosses always go for the easy target.

    Your project has revealed nothing but perhaps your ability not to abuse English grammar.

  268. re: TERESA NIELSEN HAYDEN, posting #233

    That was my first blog comment anywhere. I’m old and shy. Is my reluctance to get specific about my identity a lapse of etiquette on this blog? In answer to your questions:

    Saratoga Springs, Utah

    My city is a disjunct string of leapfrogging housing developments that are still under construction.

    It is also part of a region of explosive growth. My city is new, incorporated in 1997 when the population within our current boundaries was about 250. Our latest estimate 11 years later is 17,000. West of us is another new city with a population that went from less than 250 to approx. 24,000 in the same period.

    Lehi, the “small city nearby” more than doubled its population, changing from a rural to urban during the housing boom. Similar growth has occured north of us in the Salt Lake valley.

    Traffic congestion in the entire region prompted the state D.O.T. to propose a major freeway project to handle north-south traffic in the Salt Lake Valley. That freeway is designed to connect to I-15 at its southern terminus, which passes through Saratoga Springs. Over the course of 6 years, an open and public process was used to determine the best alignment for the new freeway as part of producing the Environmental Impact Statement. I was an active participant in that process, along with elected officials from each city and county impacted by the project as well as environmental organizations, gov and nongov.

    The road alignment for which I “lobbied” the government was one of three options proferred by the project managers at the conclusion of the EIS design process. What most participants, including U.D.O.T., concluded was the best option was stopped by a well-orchestrated developer led protest movement.

    The alignment I “lobbied” for was not our first choice. Neither our first choice nor the current compromise would have gone through residential neighborhoods when they were first identified, years ago. They threaten neighborhoods now because housing developments were permitted in those locations while the regional transportation planning process was in progress.

    All of my “lobbying” efforts occurred within the context of, and supportive of, the “established highway and development plans” in our region.

    I became vocal about our support only when Lehi’s government began lobbying to change the conclusions of the established plans, (after six years of cooperative effort by many contributors). Lehi’s proposed alternative would have eliminated any east/west limited access highway connection between what will be a very large population center west of Lehi, to the major north/south interstate freeway in the center of the valley, forcing drivers to use surface roads, and exacerbating the greatest annoyance to the civic-minded Lehi residents — congestion caused by their neighbors to the west.

    Lehi has no schools. It is part of a very (way too) large school district, the Alpine School District. Municipal boundaries are not used by the district as a consideration of who attends where. Lehi residents’ school taxes go into the same bucket as everyone else’s in the district. There are now two elementary schools operating within the Saratoga Springs boundaries, with a high school to open this fall, and a middle school and third elementary a year later.

    Lehi has generously allowed out-of-towners to use their library, parks, and recreation facilities, just as we allow any member of the public to use our parks and marina and to participate in our recreation programs. We don’t have a rec center, but I think our residents’ fees to Lehi have helped them make their bond payments on theirs. I do not (and have never) objected to Lehi’s restricting access or charging fees for their services.

    I don’t know who owns the term “buildout”, but it represents a reality which, if ignored, leads to poor planning, especially when considering consequences of growth on adjacent communities.

    Tuesday, we had a minor disagreement with Walmart over the color of some awnings. We worked things out. I met the store manager and co-manager (I think that means assistant manager). Both he and she are Walmart veterans, now in their early thirties (my best guess) who have worked their way up from shelf stocker and sales clerk. They rented an office nearby to handle the job applications. When the store opens this spring, it will employ 400 people, most of them new employees, and many from the Eagle Mountain/Saratoga Springs/Lehi area.

    Property and sales tax revenue from the store will be a significant resource for providing services to residents, keeping down property taxes. Other businesses have been encouraged by Walmart’s decision to locate in our commercial center. We will soon be able to provide most of the services our residents have been driving many miles to obtain.

    Now: You invited me to go on, and I have. Thanks.

  269. @312: What a terrible thing to do to a child. I can’t think of a way in which it’s okay as a parent to bring a baby into a miserable situation in order to make yourself feel better.

    @Libertarian bashers: I’d really appreciate it if you’d narrow the stream of invective just a bit. We’re not all the same person and (hopefully!) we have not all personally offended you. It’s bothersome to see an offhanded dismissal of one’s political views in the middle of an otherwise thoughtfully written comment.

  270. And Adam Shepard has realized his 21st century version of the ‘American Dream’ – write a book based on ‘real-life’ events, go on a book tour, get invited to Oprah Show and rake in the moolah…

  271. My grandfather was a manual laborer with a 6th grade education. As such, he supported a wife and two children in a small house. Every other house in the neighborhood had the same sort of family. Every city at the time had neighborhoods like this. It was the norm. Educated fathers made more money and had less dangerous jobs, and their families lived in nicer homes (etc. etc.) but it was a matter of degree, not a dividing line.

    It is a very recent phenomenon in the US to need a minimum of 2 jobs per family to be able to afford children.

  272. I see two general points advanced by Wal-Mart apologists.

    1) We’re no longer a manufacturing economy, we’re a service economy!

    2) Wal-Mart lets people do more with their money.

    The problem, of course, is that two qualities conflict. If we’re a service economy, after all, then we most certainly don’t want our services concentrated into massive stores that maintain low prices by using a dramatically smaller number of total employees to manage a centralized location. In a “service” economy, the “lower prices” are inevitably balanced out by the dearth of available jobs (and, consequently, the lower wages and benefits resulting from the drastically reduced demand for new employees).

    A business like Wal-Mart can only be a productive and beneficial force in a “manufacturing economy.” In a service economy, it’s a giant cancer. The apologists can’t have their cake and eat it too.

  273. Interesting, but now I’d like to see someone write a book arguing that it’s awesome that towns across the U.S. now look alike and have the same giant stores as everywhere else–or that it’s better to aim for Wal-Mart middle-management than to have had the chance to start your own business.

  274. It’s bothersome to see an offhanded dismissal of one’s political views in the middle of an otherwise thoughtfully written comment.

    Isn’t it though.

  275. This is perhaps too long a comment, but here goes anyhow:

    Sigh. My zeitgeist reaction to this article can be summed up as “But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

    Mr. Platt skimmed the surface of the subject so lightly that not a molecule was disturbed, yet he pontificated about the very deepest depths of the pool. Several commenters used the phrase “poverty tourism” or one similar to it. It’s a good description. It never fails to amaze me how many people visit other areas of the world (or their own country) and never explore anything but places of power and wealth and beauty, with an occasional de rigour visit to a site of historical tragedy. Perhaps I could commend Mr. Platt and that bozo Adam Shepherd, but this poverty tourism has begun to seriously piss me off. It seems that the point of the exercise is to “blame the victim”, or more precisely, to make it abundantly clear that anyone who lives long term in poverty and is not able to pull themselves out by their own efforts is lazy, stupid, or both. I’ll try very hard to slow down and make my point, because my first reaction is simply to rant and rage at the absolute idiocy of the notion.

    First, let’s address the many, many issues encompassed in “But aside from that…”, beginning before birth and working through the life-cycle. Lets assume that the “typical” minimum wage worker. I’m not going to get hung up on the WalMart issue, although WalMart’s sins are egregious, but focus on the larger issue of “free market” capitalism as practiced in the US since the Reagan years, and the even larger issue of systemic poverties and oppressions. I’ll attempt to break down issues into various “realms” of life. This will be only a sampling of possible effects, and people in long term poverty range from being effected by very few of these, to a vast majority of these. Pick one or two from each grouping, and start adding effects, and you’re beginning to see the edges of the problem.

    Generational & pre-natal poverty effects:

      parental generational effects of poverty (take this list and just keep going back through the generations)
      parental lack of education
      parental lack of access to affordable and/or self-controlled and/or culturally approved ways of preventing pregnancy (including abstinence, which is not a choice for many, many women)
      parent trauma-affected
      parental lack of medical care
      parent malnutrition
      parental addiction
      parental poverty-related hygiene issues (clean water, vermin, etc.) [not in any way an insinuation that impoverished people are “naturally dirty”, but an acknowledgment that poverty can make hygiene difficult, which can result in hygiene related illnesses]
      depleted familial/friendship/neighborhood/regional support network
      lack of inherited resources for economic cushion in difficult times
      parental membership in an oppressed, ostracized, exploited, or even targeted for genocide group
      genetic predispositions and diseases
      pre-natal trauma
      pre-natal lack of medical care
      pre-natal lack of good nutrition

    Already not a level playing field, and the kid’s not even born yet.

    Environment of childhood home effects:

      lack of obstetric and post natal care
      parental lack of education
      lack of regular and/or emergency medical care
      domestic violence
      parental addiction
      parental mental illness
      lead paint
      membership in an oppressed, ostracized, exploited, or even targeted for genocide group
      household vermin (cockroaches, mice, and rats are endemic to high rises and many impoverished neighborhoods)
      parental lack of teaching skills
      child physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect
      inadequate transportation resources to meet basic needs
      malnutrition
      inadequate child care
      parental absence, rather through attempt to better environmental circumstances (working 2 jobs), criminal activity, death, or broken family

    Stopping here for a moment, because the list isn’t doing this subject justice. What I’m listing are primary effects, but many of the worst effects of poverty are secondary to these things listed. These include such things (even at the pre-school age before the child is swooped into the public school system to be “rescued”) as:

      nascent PTSD and the “Cluster B” “personality disorder” traits that are strongly linked to long term chaos and trauma
      neurological defects due to inadequate learning in the first two years of life
      language inadequacies due to inadequate learning in the first five years of life
      social skill inadequacies due to lack of modeling/teaching in the first years of life
      chronic low self esteem

    Moving on:

    Larger childhood environment (including neighborhoods, schools, and systems)
    impoverished school systems chronically short on talent, textbooks, and a physical environment conducive to learning
    school systems that (consciously or unconsciously) expect very little of impoverished children and do little to reverse the effects of negative home environments
    neighborhoods controlled by gangs or warlords (globally, here), where law enforcement is seen as (and is often in fact) hostile to the citizens rather than being their protectors
    physically hazardous neighborhoods due to “NIMBY” projects being located in impoverished localities and other hazards of poor maintenance due to poverty
    membership in an oppressed, ostracized, exploited, or even targeted for genocide group, and subsequent labeling of the child
    lack of safe outdoor areas to explore and thereby get exercise and command over environment
    labeling of a child still fighting trauma as “angry”, “difficult”, “defiant”, and attempts to suppress these attempts rather than support and direct these attempts
    impoverished larger environment of learning (often including lack of access to “free” resources for various reasons)
    continuing barriers to health care and good nutrition
    continuing lack of education on basic “success” skills
    lack of control over sexual choices, including abstinence, birth control, and abortion
    lack of control over home or neighborhood environment and basic safety.

    You know, I could go on, and probably will someday, but this much will get a child through adolescence with enough barriers to significantly impact the choices available to him or her, including success at applying for, gaining, and holding a job even as menial as an entry-level WalMart job. When commenters wrote: “Anyone can get a job and move up the ladder. All they have to do is show up, show up on time, and do their jobs”, they simply didn’t understand the vast territory that their unspoken “aside from that…” covered.

    Be assured that for each disadvantage listed due to poverty, there are similar advantages (privileges) to which middle class and especially wealthy children have access. I’d like to explore the concept of interlocking variables of privilege and oppression with regard to my own experience for a moment as an illustration of the point I have made.

    Generational and pre-natal: I was born to a mother from the academic class who spent her high school years in the working class, and a father whose family scrabbled up one generation back from the (immigrant) working class to the middle class. Both were college educated. My family has a clear history of sexual abuse running through it through my mother’s line for at least two generation, and probably at least three. There is also a clear history of mood disorders and addiction running through that side of the family, as well as extremely high intelligence (in at least three of the four last generations, at least one child has had a tested IQ above 145 on the Stanford-Binet scale).

    My mother had excellent pre-natal care, but drank and smoked throughout her pregnancy, and conceived me only three months after an abortion. She was height-weight proportional and ate a very balanced diet aside from her addictions. My parents’ marriage was at that point possibly tense, but not abusive. My father was a mid level manager for IBM at a time when that meant job security and a decent standard of living. I was born into a relatively new house in the suburbs with enough room for everyone, a safe neighborhood, and lots of green space to roam in. My family’s leisure standard was high enough that I was almost born at a Boy Scout Jubilee camp out.

    Summary: no poverty effects, some effects from intergenerational mental illness and addiction

    Environment of childhood home I had two older brothers (5 and 7 years older) and a younger sister (3 years younger). My mother was an at-home mother that was very dedicated to her educational role as a parent. I was read to and sang to on a regular basis, I had many manipulatable and gross motor skill toys and lots of verbal interaction. I was cuddled and hugged and limits were appropriately safe. My neighborhood was safe enough to explore with the supervision of my older brothers at the age of three and above. We never lacked food or shelter, and while I do remember tense discussions about money, loud arguments between my parents, and at least one incident of getting lost at the age of three and being brought home by a stranger, I do not ever recall feeling fundamentally unsafe. My mother drank, but I don’t remember her being impaired at this point in my life.

    Summary: pretty damned idyllic, in the greater scheme of things.

    In terms of secondary effects, I had developed a strong sense of self, was largely praised for my self identity, had a sense of command over my immediate environment, and a sense of being supported by my parents.

    Larger childhood environment (including neighborhoods, schools, and systems)
    My mother designed and had built a house on ancestral (!) land in Vermont the summer between kindergarten and first grade. The economy was “going south” and dad no longer worked for IBM, but he was able to crib together three part time jobs so that my mother did not have to work until she and my father had their first marital separation when I was in fourth grade. After my sister started school my mother’s addiction and mental health issues got bad enough that we sought (and were able to obtain) family counseling. I went to a five room elementary school with highly nutritious and delicious lunches and excellent educational values (somewhere upwards of a dozen of the children I knew growing up are now working in educational fields at the professorial level or are at the tops of their current fields). There was absolutely no crime, and only one person I knew in my life died (our next door neighbor’s son was hit by a car when I was in fifth grade).

    My life started changing drastically from fourth through tenth grade. We moved several times, through several states (Vermont to Florida to Vermont to New Mexico to Colorado to California). My parents broke up and each partnered up, then they got back together, my mother’s drinking got worse, and the relationship became very emotionally abusive (from mom to dad, primarily) and very occasionally physically abusive. I continued to “star” in academic circles, but I began to seriously struggle with social skills, and became more and more isolated. As I began to enter pubescence, I had several incidences of minor sexual harassment and one that frightened me a great deal. I developed migraines. While our financial situation improved, it never returned to being as stable as it was when I was a small child. My brothers left home, and I was left to deal with my mother, who was becoming increasingly unstable. My father largely took over the care of the household, and I was my mother’s caretaker, while my sister ran wild and attempted to raise herself and try to make sure we noticed her.

    I had another “idyllic” phase for three years in Lompoc, California, a multiracial middle class military support and agrarian community that at that time had a very low crime rate, high academic values, and an unusually non-oppressive open society (by no means was it perfect, but compared to many of the places I’ve lived, and many of the cultures I’ve lived it, it was remarkably progressive). I was a member of the middle class, with educated parents who could easily navigate any social systems I needed help from. I had a bicycle that served my transportation needs, and I had a job that paid for the very minor needs I had for independent cash. The last year of that time, I lived with the younger of my two brothers and his then fiancée (current ex-wife). I suffered benign neglect and while I probably would have benefited from some direction in my senior year of high school, I wasn’t unduly put out.

    Summary: Again, the preparations I received for adult life far exceeded the liabilities I incurred as a result of familial patterns, even though my family problems were becoming far more significant.

    Despite the fact that:

      I lived for ten years under the poverty level
      I suffered severe emotional, sexual and physical abuse for six years in my first marriage
      I was a single mother with a head injury and tendencies toward mood disorders
      I had to rebuild my self-esteem from scratch after my divorce and finish my undergraduate degree
      I went hungry, and homeless,

    I was and am still, in essence, a poverty tourist, and not someone who was shaped by poverty.

    There is and always will be a part of me that says, when I see the struggles of my homeless and addicted and mentally ill clients, “there but for the grace of God go I”, but in reality, there is some lie to that, because over the span of the first eighteen years of my life, I built up a wealth of privilege that gave me emotional, intellectual, social, physical and even to some extent financial resources that simply aren’t available to people who have lived in generational poverty their whole lives.

    I am leaving in about ten minutes to go to a funeral. You may have read about her death in the news, if you live in the Kansas City area. She was extremely intelligent (at least “gifted”), funny, ambitious, resilient, and dedicated to her family (and they to her), and yet she did not escape the effects of generational poverty.

    She is dead, murdered, and I am alive, employed, married, happy. And the difference between us is almost entirely encapsulated in “But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

  276. …Dear Odanu:

    Thank you for an eloquent encapsulation. I will re-read your post again, at least several times.

  277. Hurrying out the door before hitting send is not conducive to proof-reading. “Lets assume that the “typical” minimum wage worker.” should read “Let’s assume the ‘typical’ minimum wage worker” or “Let’s assume that I’m discussing the ‘typical’ minimum wage worker”.

    The point is that low wage, no or low benefit jobs are in fact the long term primary earning method for a large number of people born to generational poverty, and that “choices” assumed available to them by many people are not necessarily available without a great deal of remedial help and/or institutional support.

    Finally, in my hurry, I completely forgot to mention that chronic illness, both mental and physical, plays a significant part in generational poverty throughout the life cycle.

    … and thanks, Takuan and Chgoliz for your kind comments.

  278. I think this guest blogger missed a big point of the wal-mart business model.

    Next time look a little deeper Mr. Platt.

  279. Er… actually, Wal-Mart does have a dress code, though not at all of its stores yet – blue polo shirts and khaki pants. Furthermore, we’ve never heard of getting paid extra for completing CBLs. What’s your store’s number? We’d like some of those policies brought to OUR Wal-Mart.

  280. Jm Trchr, gd try, rlly pprct t, bt w nvr rpld th rl gnst drggng pltcl fgrs nt thrds whr thy dn’t blng.

    Y’r wlcm! t ws yr mntn f “strtrfng,” gss. ‘m sr y knw ll bt Dvd xlrd.

  281. Jim Treacher, good try, I really appreciate it, but we never repealed the rule against dragging political figures into threads where they don’t belong.

    I guess the Obama campaign was putting something in the water, and it has run out ;)

    As much as many would like to think that the election of Obama signals a post-racist America, I’d guess/hope that most boingboing readers know better.

    Barak and Michelle Obama anyone? Michelle Obama, in particular, made more money in her job than I can ever dream of earning, but I don’t begrudge her that.

    Jst hlpng wth th hskpng!

  282. >but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience

    I don’t know, it might have an audience precisely because of that.

    As for criticism of Wal-Mart, I ignore any criticism when the actions of consenting adults are involved. If someone willingly signs up to work at Wal-Mart, that’s the end of the story! Such protests are clearly grandstanding to try to get the government to step in and force people to do what some pressure group (such as a union) thinks they should do.

  283. RE #9 – you are so on target (no pun intended). In her book, Ms. Ehrenreich livd the “life” of a low-wage earner. For many people in the role Mr. Platt briefly assumed, it is a life of sacrifice and hunger that is softened somewhat by public assistance.

  284. you were very lucky indeed. I worked for a news paper group that printed 3 major news papers and was layed off after 23 years. I was in a management position on night side. And had put the papers to bed on deadline for many years. I also am a A+ certified technician. But due to the economy right now could not find work. So I went to work for Wal*Mart. I was told that I was part of the team. And welcome to the family. I was also told that I would be learning everything. I did very well on my CBL training modules. And finished them sooner than the other group of people I was brought in with. I worked at a super center(bigger than a football field). I was assigned to over night maintenance. which entailed emptying 12 outside trash cans. The trash in those often weighed around 50-60 pounds. And were often neglected by the day side crew. And often not double bagged. So they would split trying to remove them. Often spilling trash on me or the parking lot. Which was often a substance that smelled like puke or baby diapers. I was expected to finish that task in a hour which entailed hauling them across the football field size store. And bringing them to a trash compacter. Then compacting them. And cleaning up all the trash that was left at the compacter by other employees. And even tho I did that often accused of leaving trash there. Or at one point of not compacting it. As others which I did not bother to find who they were. Would bring there trash there and at times(actually put it in the compacter) but not run it! I can have a small comprehension of that as the compacter did not run. Well at least not within safety specifications. I know this as the CBL(training modules) said to never run the compacter with the door open. At any rate I was told by one of my many many Bosses. That I would have to crawl inside the compacter and unstuck it. If it continued to get jammed. And being a A+ tech and having some natural mechanical ability also. I mentioned that the sensors on the door were out of alignment to the store manager. Also offering the solution of volunteering to repair it. His solution was to use a magnet which he produced form under a near by machine. To trick the trash compacter into thinking the door was closed. And run it with the door open! Which turned out to be standard procedure on both of there trash compactors. This task was supposed to take less than a hour. And when I told my supervisors of the variables. They just said that is what you are here for. I also was expected to clean 5 store size bathrooms. Which my supervisor said should take 10 minutes a piece. Including mopping the floors. If I did them the way that he instructed I was reprimanded for doing a bad job. He insisted that they could be done that way as they were already done by the day crew. Even tho at many times it appeared as they were not! Actually it was more like they were vandalized. Graffiti on the walls that had to be removed. And all the toilet paper rings thrown on the floor etc. In the area I live used toilet paper thrown on the floor and many other atrocity’s. But they would shine when I was through from top to bottom. I take pride in my work what ever it is. I also cleaned a lunch room including mopping the floors. I sometimes wondered about that lunch room actually often wondered. Food fights perhaps? And the area of the store you worked in the front probably from looking at the picture. Well we had two areas that extended in wings with video games. I wiped down that area swept and mopped the floors. And the front of the store I swept. Then under the registers and gondolas that held product before the front cash registers. I was never allowed to do any other jobs for close to three months. No additional training. I missed a meeting that we had every night where work responsibility’s were assigned. And was coached for that and for being too slow on my job. They watched me for one night and decided that I had improved 110% . Even tho I did everything exactly the same way. Oh and previous to the coaching had been told many time that they liked my work.My work was making me so tired that I did nothing but sleep on my time off. Oh and many blisters on my feet. I have heard other employees report the same thing. Also I have heard in the lunch room that the last person that did this job wound up in the hospital for a heart attack. And that they work the ones that do the unloading until they drop. There legs wont hold them up any more. I don’t have the space to include all of the humiliation that have been through. But well being called a boy. And asked if I could be borrowed.(Can I borrow your boy!). I am 55 years old. And being told that when a associate manager talks to me I am not to make eye contact,and am expected to look at the floor. I would like to add this link tho.

    Walmart was within there legal rights. All tho to force this lady in such desperate physical condition. In her financial condition I do not feel that forced is a strong term. She had to spend time in court. After everything she went through. I find that to be way less than ethical. I have seen the Walmart training videos. They infer that you are part of the family. Part of the team.
    But in reality I think they exploit and prey on peoples weakness. Some of these videos have asked why are a lot of the employees are still at poverty level when there are obscene profits being made.
    Well the answer is really rather simple exploitation. Most wouldn’t feel it wasn’t proper to kick a person. When they were down. But on the other hand what a better way to win a fight.
    They probably thought that this poor lady wouldn’t get any support. And they did give the money back to her. Well in a way that is like saying you are sorry (AFTER YOU GET CAUGHT).
    Oh and when I was orientated I was told that I had better not bring a law suite against Walmart ever! Because there lawyers are as slippery as snail snot. And from working for them I can guarantee that this lady is just one of the many cases that was heard of.
    When you are at poverty level you like to eat. So I am betting that due to work place harassment and retaliation there are many things that happen that are never heard of.

  285. Boing-Boing does a real disservice to itself by letting this scion of white privilege write about his short-lived “experience” at Wal-Mart as if he really had the same investigative cojones as Barbara Ehrenreich. Did this GIT try to live on what he earned as a Walmart employee? Did he retain whatever private health insurance he has while in the employ of WalMart? Did he ever put down his condescending attitude for one minute and think about what it’s *REALLY LIKE* to have Walmart as one’s only labor option?

    He’s a punk. Thanks BB, for letting “the other half” have their say about what life at minimum wage is “really like.” How much does a full page ad in Boing-Boing run these days anyway – did you let him have it for free?

    regards
    gregoryp(tm)

  286. What a load of crap. Try sending in a regular Joe and leave him there til he hits 10.00 an hour. Then chronicle the truth.

  287. Wow you sure did get a lot of strong-opinionated comments! lol But I just wanted to say I like the way you write. It kept me reading and whether I agreed or not, you brought up a lot of good points. Everybody will always have something to say about this, but from my experience, when I was pregnant and desperately trying to find a job, Wal-mart gave me one, and it saved my ass!

  288. Charles, this is a fascinating post and I appreciate your curiosity and honest reporting in undertaking this experiment. I also thought Ehrenreich was unrealistic in trying to live on her own on an entry-level salary. Who does that? But I was intrigued to learn that every interactive course you took on company time earned you an incremental increase in your hourly wage. That’s a smart and fair policy.

    Ha ha ha! I have worked at Wal Mart for 18 years and I have never gotten an incremental increase in my hourly wage for taking CBLs. Computer Based Learning. There is no such policy. Also no the lowest level associates are not allowed to make decisions about inventory. I don’t know what Wal-Mart you worked at, but it sure isn’t the one I work at. Not to mention that most of the people I work with are married couples, single moms and dads, and elderly people trying to make a living and yes they pay their rent, their utilities, and their groceries with their Wal-Mart paycheck. Jobs are hard to find and people work at my store to make ends meet. None of us are working there for our health or amusement. Of course there is a lot of entertainment value in working at Wal-Mart. From the stupid antics of upper management to the rather interesting clientele that shop there. I can also tell you that people don’t necessarily get paid any better when they do acquire these skills you speak of. As a matter of fact Wal Mart is trying to rid themselves of long term associates so they can hire new people part time for cheaper wages so a lot of folks don’t have the opportunity to acquire these skills. Working at one Wal-Mart store for a week does not give you any expertise about Wal-Mart. Try working at the same store for 18 years and then come talk to me about what you know. I’ve seen a lot of stuff happen in my store. Good, bad, and yes even evil. You Mr. Platt know nothing. And you lie like hell too. Whoever heard of getting an increment in their hourly wage for sitting in front of a computer wearing headphones and listening to someone drone for 15 minutes. Ha ha ha!!!!! Now that’s a rich one.

  289. If America had not de-industrialized, Walmart would be nothing more than the five and dime store it started out as (read: the world’s largest dollar store) Why?
    Americans would be too busy (as are now southeast Asians) making things. But unlike those same Asians, they’d be pulling in 20 or 30 American dollars an hour to do so…making things of quality, as they used to do, instead of ridiculous kewpie dolls galore, ugly shoes and endless junk.
    We would thus have superlative choice in stores scattered across the landscape, (including all the sad pathetic dismantled Main streets) at marked up fair prices that people could actually afford to pay. Why? (read previously mentioned dollar values.)

    It is an entirely rigged game. I’m amazed that debate and rhetoric still dances around this issue like sugarplum fairies. I have no problem “insulting” the nay-sayers and giving a hearty Bronx cheer to the soft-shoe stylings that worship this pathetic race to the bottom.
    We have arrived at the bottom. It has kicked the crap out of what’s left in any sane society to regard its own image in the mirror and admit the truth about what it sees there.

    Mr. Sam was a smart guy. I still don’t quite believe he was as evil as his survivors have become. They are opportunitsts…playing this giant game of checkers with global desperadoes.
    Think of it. This corporation is the “best” that America has to offer?
    Much the same as a rail system that the Bulgarians would run out of state.

  290. The pay is low but many of the employees at Wal-Mart and Target have their pay supplemented by government benefits for low-wage workers.

    Medicaid health insurance
    Housing subsidies
    Food stamps
    Free school lunch for kids
    Earned income tax credit
    Child tax credit
    Child care tax credit
    and others.

    1. So, you’re saying that WalMart keeps its profits high by relying on other peoples’ tax dollars to pay for their employees.

  291. “One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.”
    In other words, the lowest-level/lowest-pay employees are forced to take over huge responsibility without compensation?
    That kind of employer’s behaviour leads to the fact we have over-qualified and highly educated people working on lower positions. Not doing entry level work, mind you, just having entry level position in the company.
    Entry-level position in the company = low pay = low responsibility = low level of skills required.
    If an employee needs to understand and know more to make decisions and take over more responsibility = company should pay him more.
    Anyway, smart move for Walmart, using people like that; not so smart of you to mention that as an example of Walmart’s goodness.

  292. Two words for Adam Shepard: white male.

    It’s truly dishonest to say that this Shepard guy proves every single person can just work their way to the top. What about single moms? Shepard never had to deal with child care, health problems, being a person of color, or any disadvantages at all- I mean, the guy looks like a friggin Ken doll on ‘roids. Not impressed.

    As for saying that every single complaint about Wal-Mart is illegitimate because of your experience, I have two words for you: white male.

    Get real.

  293. I just wanted to reply to this, the comments, and add my own two cents.

    First of all let me give a little background, I live in a small town in Texas where opportunity is scarce. I am a graduate from a major university with a degree in Environmental Science. I graduated with honors. Instead of seeking employment directly after finishing school, I decided to take a year off and explore other aspects of life. I volunteered often and spent time with my family. Later I took a position teaching about the local ecosystems. Family issues arose which led me to move out of state for two years. When I moved back I applied everywhere within my field, within the year I had no bites, but my resume was plastered with every imaginable company. I finally bit the bullet and began to apply at local businesses. My last resort was WAL-MART, low and behold this is my new job.

    I do overnight maintenance from 10pm to 7am (and no, we don’t get “locked in”). It’s just about the most tedious job I have ever had. The pay is terrible, the managers that run my shift have major power issues, and my co-workers are constantly in a state of agitation. This being said, it is the only place that took the time to hire me (I am still keeping my eye out for another opportunity though, this will not become my career).

    The WAL-MART where I work is more concerned with loss prevention and cost than they are with their own workers well being. In the 8 hours that I actually work (1 hour is mandatory lunch, at 2am no less)we barely have time to finish our duties because of spending issues. While most of the WAL-MARTs you see use a riding cleaner, we use an out of date push cleaner and a hand powered buffer every night, aisle by aisle. By the end of the night our hands are blistered and our feet are barely functional.

    What my point is Sir, is that WAL-MART may be an awesome place to work in some parts of the country, it is dramatically different from place to place. While some have happy managers and giddy workers, others have people who want to gouge their eyes out on a regular basis. And before some one says anything to the effect of “well if you don’t like it quit and get another job”…I’m working on it. Some parts of this land are still suffering from the recent financial crisis. Many things are easier said than done.

    One more thing I wanted to say, regarding those who are basing the hiring process on skin color, most of the people that I work with are not white. There are all types of people from all types of backgrounds that work where I do.

    ~Best wishes if you think WAL-MART is some kind of saint sent from the sky. As enterprising as it may sound to work for this place, I would suggest flipping burgers before I would suggest using this as a conveyance for financial freedom.

  294. Really I think our blogger needed to stay at wal mart for a few more years. He’d find out just how physically and emotionally draining working for them can be. Crazy schedules that interfer with personal and family life. Customers that lie and connive often at some clerks expense to get something at a discount or even free. Having some dept or zone manager constantly be on your case because you’ve been there a number of years and they want you out simply because you make too much money and this cuts into their bonus. I could go on and on…..

  295. I wonder what kind of car mr platt used to drive to work, i.e. to Walmart
    take a guess
    a: a cadillac
    b: a BMW
    c: a Lamborghini
    d: a 20 year old clunker

    for any of the above answers the qualifying statement would be that he borrowed the money for the car from his grandmother

  296. I think the point of “Nickle and Dimed” wasn’t that Walmart is hideous or bad but that it is difficult to live off those kind of wages, especially for a family.

    Adam Shepard has an advantage over his “coworkers” from his experiment; he has a bachelors degree in business from Merrimack College in Andover MA. While he didn’t get a job using his degree he certainly used the knowledge to his advantage.

    While both men offer fascinating reads, they miss the point completely.

  297. i started working at walmart around 7 months ago and ya it was pretty decent for about the first 2 to 3 months i was there but then the job turned out to be total crap my managers didnt really know what they where doing most of the time and we keep loosing cashiers and csm’s if i can make any suggestions at all its to just shop at walmart do NOT work there you will just be waisting your time

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