« The Dorgan Smear | Main | Why Can"t Lieberman Be Challenged In a Primary? »

Wal-Mart and Public Subsidies

I, too, have avoided wading into the Wal-Mart debate, but the discussion here and also on TAPPED (especially Ezra Klein"s post yesterday afternoon), but the questions raised about whether Wal-Mart employees" use of benefits such as Medicaid or Food Stamps should be considered "corporate welfare" to the company raises some issues of long interest to me.

The argument about whether it"s a bad thing that Wal-Mart employees use public programs needs a little perspective: We should recognize the quiet revolution that has taken place in social policy for low-income workers over the last twenty years. Two decades ago, Medicaid was an adjunct of welfare. With some exceptions, the only way to be eligible for Medicaid was to get welfare (AFDC): that meant exclusively non-working single parents and their kids. When families came off welfare, they also lost Medicaid, which was the key fact that made the argument of Charles Murray"s Losing Ground basically true: a parent might well be better off on welfare, with health care, than working at a minimum wage job without it, especially with the added costs of child care. That"s not because welfare was too generous, but because the low-end labor market was too cruel, and the cliff too steep.

Over the course of twenty years, however, Medicaid was slowly expanded into a program for low-income families, not just welfare recipients: First, families with incomes up to 150% of the poverty line were made eligible, then states were allowed to cover families up to 185% of poverty. Families leaving welfare also got additional protections -- a year or more of "transitional Medicaid" to smooth the path into the workforce. The State Child Health Insurance Program created in 1997 goes up to 200% of the poverty line and some states go higher. The Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded several times over that period, and in 2001, the Additional Child Tax Credit added another small subsidy for working families with children. Child care spending rose massively in this period. All this made the blow from welfare reform much softer than it would have been otherwise.

In total, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the difference in spending on poor families with children under these entitlement programs, between 1984 and 1999 and adjusted for both inflation and population,  was $45 billion a year -- about $5 billion under the 1984 programs, and $51 billion in 1999. (I wrote more about this, in the course of a somewhat different argument, here.)

Meanwhile, in all that time, the minimum wage rose from $3.35 to $5.15, the last increase a decade ago, and in real dollars it"s worth fifty cents less than in 1984.

What we have here is a massive decision by the federal government to subsidize low-wage work rather than to force employers to pay more or provide basic benefits. Often the tradeoff was very specific: There was consensus among many Republicans and DLC Democrats that the Earned Income Credit was a "better" way of supporting low-wage workers than a minimum-wage increase, and whenever a minimum-wage increase seemed to gain momentum, Republicans would suddenly become the biggest fans of the Earned Income Credit.

So I sort of agree with Matt that there"s no point in blaming Wal-Mart for employing workers who take advantage of these programs. The entire thrust of social policy over the last two decades, albeit a quiet one, has been to encourage the creation of low-wage jobs by subsidizing them. We made a bipartisan political choice not to impose that responsibility on companies, and to use public subsidies instead.

But having made that choice, we can unmake it, or reconsider it. And we should. And if focusing on Wal-Mart, the world"s biggest company and the country"s biggest employer, helps show the consequences of that choice, that"s all to the good.

Here"s why we should reconsider it (I say, as if I were suddenly the chair of the Senate Finance Committee): First, it"s a very complex and partial system. The refundable tax credits are hugely complicated, forcing many low-income workers to pay for tax prep services that eat up half the benefit. The Medicaid benefits still leave huge gaps. I"d be much more concerned about the Wal-Mart workers who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still don"t have real health insurance. That"s a particular problem in the South, where Medicaid eligibility is much narrower, and for people without children, such as workers age 55-65 or women of childbearing age who may never see a doctor until they are pregnant. One might try to extend these programs further, but I would argue that we have reached the limit of what can be done with this cumbersome mix of tax credits and Medicaid expansion, especially when we have to increase taxes just to bring the deficit under control.

Second, supports for workers through subsidies should go hand in hand with internal pressures to support workers within the company. As I pointed out above, Republicans rally behind the Earned Income Credit whenever a real threat to increase the minimum wage arises. If unions were stronger and were fighting cuts in health benefits, employers would be more open to a new national deal on health insurance. That"s why Ezra Klein"s argument that unions over-emphasize the expansion of employer-based benefits at the expense of more generous public benefits is short-sighted. You only get political consensus for public benefits when there"s pressure for employer-based benefits. The union pressure on Wal-Mart is plainly leading it to look for public solutions it can support. And it"s not just politics -- we need both employer-based and public benefits. We need a minimum wage increase and the EITC; otherwise the EITC is just filling the gap between an absurdly low wage and the basic costs of survival for a family.

Health care is a little different, because that is more of an either/or. Except for a "pay or play" option, which doesn"t seem to have much political life anymore, it"s a choice between an employer-based system and an individual-based public system. Either we"ll continue to hope that the anachronistic employer-based system survives a little longer, or we"ll revamp it completely, which will mean much greater public subsidy at all levels of the system. That would be a good thing, even if it resulted in Wal-Mart and other companies getting off the hook on health care costs. But Wal-Mart, the Waltons and the shareholders would have to pay higher taxes for such a system. And that"s a good thing too.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 2, 2005 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Wal-Mart and Public Subsidies:

» Drugs & Supplements from Drug Information and Supplement Information

Tracked on Apr 14, 2006 10:07:02 AM

» Record Labels May Back Down Over iTunes Pricing from may be on verge
on verge of waving white flag in front of Apple boss Steve Jobs, abandoning its demand for iTunes to charge different prices for [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 26, 2006 1:03:48 PM

» 2 games in the bag, Suns are 1-1 from despite a great
game, 122-112.  Steve Nash led the team once again with 17 assists and Shawn Marion played well, pouring [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 26, 2006 8:09:15 PM

» Legalising and declassifying drugs from What if all drugs were legal?
urban75 drug information: a huge online resource of drug information, help and advice including cannabis, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, solvents, ketamine and ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2006 3:55:20 PM

» Free & Open Source Software Portal: Search from An Online Directory
Popular links · Discussion Forum. Directory Search. By Keyword. Advanced Search. Directory New Links. New links added this week. links in Portal... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 27, 2006 4:48:01 PM

» 2006 Colleges, College Scholarships and Financial Aid Page from Database of Online Corporate Financial Information
Information on college scholarships and financial aid, featuring a free college scholarship search... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 30, 2006 9:44:14 PM

» Estimated 300,000 march in Los Angeles immigration protest from 15:37 PDT Two
in the "Day Without Immigrants" already have drawn hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands [Read More]

Tracked on May 2, 2006 5:08:34 PM

» Boost To Health And Medical Research Funding In Australia "very Welcome" from for Health and
Abbott, and the Minister for Finance and Administration, Nick Minchin, and Medicines Australia congratulates [Read More]

Tracked on May 3, 2006 10:18:30 AM

» Time on Bench Leaves Nash With Stiff Back from quarter and the
troublesome back tightened up after he sat out the final 2:34 of the third quarter and the first 2:15 of the fourth quarter [Read More]

Tracked on May 6, 2006 1:20:22 PM

» Wizards Confident They'll Rebound from Wizards overcame
with a five-game losing streak and they overcame an embarrassing performance in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series [Read More]

Tracked on May 15, 2006 8:06:25 PM

» Iran's Bad Behavior Recalls Old Times from ark Bowden's
ark Bowden's New Book Details the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis [Read More]

Tracked on May 16, 2006 7:08:39 PM

» University Search from Worldnet Service
Searching the University web servers, the Internet, for telephone numbers and ... Use this page to search for people (by surname) or for institutions within ... [Read More]

Tracked on May 17, 2006 7:26:44 PM

» Prosecutor: Lay Lays Blame Elsewhere from blame and events
and events to blame did not include yourself, did it, sir?" asked prosecutor John Hueston. "I did everything I could humanly [Read More]

Tracked on May 19, 2006 3:03:48 PM

» Каталог Google - World > Russian from Каталог интернет-ресурсов
Справка по Каталог Искать в Блоги Поиск в Интернете ... Russian > Компьютеры > Интернет > В сети > Блоги, На главную страницу Каталога: [русский] [English] ... [Read More]

Tracked on May 20, 2006 12:31:36 PM

» Search in Directory: easter lamb cake from Directory Map
Directory of hundreds of search engines, organised by country and topic. [Read More]

Tracked on May 25, 2006 8:44:59 AM

» Dictionary Search Page from Dictionary Search
An unabridged dictionary from aalii to zymurgy, including a pronunciation guide... [Read More]

Tracked on May 26, 2006 4:25:08 PM

» Fox Run at Orchard Park Announces the Sale of Almost $80 Million of Bonds from Lifecare community;
bringing jobs and revenue to Erie County. (PRWEB May 15, 2006) [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2006 6:42:10 PM

» Money With Google from decent extra
you mean the internet money fairy will not find me for doing nothing?) but with a little effort [Read More]

Tracked on May 30, 2006 4:09:01 PM

» GM makes another investment in new six-speed automatics from operation of
of the new transmission. All told, GM's investment in the design, development and production of the new [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 5, 2006 5:05:56 AM

» The Great Divide Back Home from (By Ward Sutton
(By Ward Sutton) [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 5, 2006 10:22:21 PM

» Series Analysis: Phoenix (2) vs. Dallas (4) from Klask, Advance
Klask, Advance Scout for the Orlando Magic, breaks down the Suns-Mavericks Western [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 8, 2006 12:02:25 AM

» British Girls Gone Wild: 'Ladette Culture' on Rise from ritain Concerned
ritain Concerned Over Brackish Behavior [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 11, 2006 11:29:38 AM

» Jackman Makes Like Crowe (E! Online) from E! Online -
E! Online - A wolverine is moving in as the Crowe flies the coop. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 12, 2006 2:28:34 AM

» TV Screen, Not Couch, Is Required for This Session from growing number
number of psychiatrists are using telemedicine technology to reach patients in rural swaths of the [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 16, 2006 8:16:25 AM

» Cool Deals as Temperatures Rise at Paramount Hotel New York from Square, announces
Jun 15, 2006) Trackback URI: http://www.prweb.com/zingpr.php/U2luZy1TcXVhLVNxdWEtU2luZy1JbnNlLVplcm8= [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 16, 2006 3:01:14 PM

» USA towns: Princeton from USA MAP
USA - cities, towns and villages of the United States. Extensive business listings, community info, coupons and classified ads for USA cities, ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 22, 2006 8:40:32 PM

» Afghan Bombings Kill 2 Coalition Soldiers - ABC News from right, as he
as he walks with Dutch Lt. Col. Joland Dubbeldam, center, furing a review [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 24, 2006 6:04:42 PM

» atlanta gastroenterologist from Medicine Words
Medicine Dictionaries and Word References Emergency Medical Technology ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 25, 2006 1:51:48 PM

» Medical Dictionary from Bestbarrel
Searchable dictionary created by Dr. ALFRED. [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 25, 2006 7:42:21 PM

» ALL Themes from Invision Power Board
He has set up a test blog so you can check it out - it’s great work. ... Note to all theme authors: In order to be considered for the competition, ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 26, 2006 4:45:40 AM

» People Search in Internet 2006 from Plot Summary for Words
Words - Cast, Crew, Reviews, Plot Summary, Comments, Discussion, Taglines, Trailers, Posters, Photos, Showtimes, Link to Official Site, Fan Sites. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2006 1:05:16 AM

» loon down from People searching
Searchable keywords online... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2006 1:07:54 AM

» Wiki: Search Results from MostDor
Search Results · WelcomeVisitors . . . . . . WhatIsWiki WhatIsWiki . . . . . . WhatIsWiki. 2 pages found out of 22 pages searched. ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 5, 2006 5:57:26 AM

» Merritt Hospitality Installs Aptech?s Market-Leading Business Intelligence Solutions from http://www.prweb.com/chachingpr.php/RmFsdS1TaW5nLVNxdWEtSW5zZS1JbnNlLVplcm8=
growth and $500 million in acquisitions annually (PRWEB Aug 1, 2006) Trackback [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 8, 2006 2:27:53 AM

» Internet Home from For All
... Computers & Internet News · History of Computers & Internet ... 1995-2006 [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 12, 2006 11:23:40 AM


This is a great analysis, insightful and instructive. On an abstract level, which admittedly does not abut on public policy, I am bothered by another aspect of the Wal-Mart culture: it is the locus of a moral dilemma. Some of us have easy access to Wal-Mart (in my case, it's practically next door to my gym) but must travel 10 miles or more to the nearest Costco (which is unionized). But our incomes are such that we cannot afford to pass up Wal-Mart in favor of sstores with higher-priced mechandise (the same merchandise, marked up more). We don't like encouraging employers who exploit workers and ban unions--but we can't afford not to shop at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is aware of this, of course (if, that is, they care), and so I feel that I am in the same boat as the exploited workers--I'm an exploited consumer. I realize this is a trivial concern, and a bit of navel-gazing at that, but it does impinge (negatively) on the quality of life.


Posted by: | Dec 2, 2005 11:58:30 AM

There are historical precidents to this predicament. Many on the left are enamored with the EITC but it is in some ways a retread of the Speenhamland system in 18th century England. A subsidy to the poor is effectively a handout for their employers if they have no bargaining power over their wages.

Posted by: Battlepanda | Dec 2, 2005 11:59:35 AM

This is a great analysis, insightful and instructive. On an abstract level, which admittedly does not abut on public policy, I am bothered by another aspect of the Wal-Mart culture: it is the locus of a moral dilemma. Some of us have easy access to Wal-Mart (in my case, it's practically next door to my gym) but must travel 10 miles or more to the nearest Costco (which is unionized). But our incomes are such that we cannot afford to pass up Wal-Mart in favor of sstores with higher-priced mechandise (the same merchandise, marked up more). We don't like encouraging employers who exploit workers and ban unions--but we can't afford not to shop at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is aware of this, of course (if, that is, they care), and so I feel that I am in the same boat as the exploited workers--I'm an exploited consumer. I realize this is a trivial concern, and a bit of navel-gazing at that, but it does impinge (negatively) on the quality of life.


Posted by: | Dec 2, 2005 12:57:55 PM

Sorry, I don't think this post is very well thought out. If I understand correctly, you're proposing a variation on the old Trotskyite "magnifying the contradictions" strategy, by which we deny Wal-Mart any relief until they knuckle under and agree to endorse universal healthcare. And at the same time, you're arguing that intermediate strategies like "pay-or-play" are politically infeasible. Sounds like a big casino gamble to me, with lousy odds.

If there's a universal healthcare system in America's future, it will probably come about through sneaky backdoor methods like the one Furman and Klein are proposing: co-opt low-wage employers to support a system that takes the pressure off their bottom line, stabilize it and roll it up the income scale.

It also seems to me that you utterly misunderstand Klein's point about union goals. Of course unions have to keep up the pressure by demanding better coverage in their contracts. They are, and they always will. The issue is not what individual union locals want, but what the labor movement wants and will support. That's the dispute that caused the CIO unions to leave the AFL back in the 1920s, and it's a structural conflict that has to be refought in every generation.

Posted by: tom hilliard | Dec 2, 2005 3:48:52 PM


I think you've hit on the essential dilemma, which is that we are all victims of Wal-Mart's bar-lowering. If it's so hard for us middle-class folks to avoid Wal-Mart, it's impossible for the poor, and we cannot blame them for that. The other element here is tactics vs. strategy. We on the Left have to decide what it is we want to accomplish, not just fire indiscriminate arrows at random targets, no matter how deserving. I don't claim to know exactly what that should be or how to accomplish it, but at least I can recognize that we shouldn't stigmatize/punish lower-class workers simply for working for Wal-Mart.

Posted by: Ben | Dec 5, 2005 3:31:47 PM

FYI, James Kroeger, author of The Republican Nemesis, has a new website: Nontrivial Pursuits.

Yep, he's got an answer for the Fear Walmart crowd.

Posted by: Linette | Dec 10, 2005 9:49:26 PM

Great post. Some states and communities are making choices about the types of businesses they recruit and are pleased to see open within their jurisdictions. The data on Wal-Mart employees' reliance on public assistance is useful for pointing out that Wal-Mart stores are not high road economic development. It also seems to be good data for making the claim that the minimum wage needs to increase.

Posted by: Chuck | Dec 12, 2005 7:23:30 PM

Thanks. Definitely outside the box we've been rummaging around in blogosphere.

Posted by: TwentyFirstCentury | Dec 13, 2005 2:10:03 PM

Excellent post. It is a quandary for those of us who are offended by America’s largest corporation being such a poor employer and also favor expansion of public healthcare programs. How can we advocate the expansion of those programs to cover working people and then complain when working people use them? The answer is that showing the numbers of Wal-Mart employees on public programs is not about those programs and more about hanging a bell on the conditions at Wal-Mart. It isn’t inconsistent to say “employers should do well by their workers but we have to take care of employees of employers who don’t do well by their workers—and we don’t like such employers.” Of course, some sort of national healthcare with widespread coverage is going to happen at some point. Either by the politics described—where employers get crushed by the private system and support the change to a public system, or by another politics where employers stop providing coverage, the financing of health care falls apart and the public and medical profession demand a public system.

Posted by: Michael Ettlinger | Dec 14, 2005 1:03:49 PM

Very entertaining issue. I haven't heard of this one. It will be necessary to visit you on a thicket!

Posted by: Terry | Nov 17, 2006 7:54:44 AM

Walmart i think has their benefits for their employees. Me as a Walmart employee, i also got my benefits such as Medicaid or Food Stamps. Good thing i also work in their online store the walmart homepage http://www.rollingpricesback.com .

Posted by: Shannon | Jul 11, 2007 12:35:58 AM