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Wednesday, February 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Wal-Mart nation: the race to the bottom

By Floyd J. McKay
Special to The Times

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Los Angeles is not my kind of town. But the Angelinos are about to take a stand that ought to be applauded across the country.

That stand is to say "no" to a Wal-Mart "supercenter" that the retailing giant hopes to open in the city.

These superstores are not your father's Wal-Mart; they are monstrous, sprawling over some 25 acres and employing up to 600 workers. Their lure, of course, is lower prices.

Wal-Mart, it seems to me, epitomizes the race to the bottom that has the United States by the throat as the 21st century opens.

Why do people shop at these behemoths, when they know full well that they are driving out of existence small businesses owned and operated by their neighbors, employing other neighbors?

They shop because of price, and they are forced to do so by the declining standard of living we have offered working people for more than a generation. People who work for minimum wage, with little or no benefits, who cannot afford to fix their car or their kids' teeth have no choice but to search out the lowest price.

Wal-Mart buys offshore, without apology and for the cheapest possible prices, from companies paying the lowest-possible wages.

As jobs in America are lost to foreign sweatshops to feed the Wal-Mart engine, American workers are forced to accept jobs at lower pay, with bad working conditions. They are funneled to Wal-Mart's promise of cheap goods, in effect patronizing the very companies that caused their economic misery.

This is a cruel travesty on working people in this country.

Wal-Mart is currently being sued in some 40 cases charging various abuses of labor laws, and last fall it was reported the company extensively employs illegal aliens as janitors. Wal-Mart has successfully opposed unionization and frequently pays well below competing stores.

All of these practices — alleged abuses of labor laws, hiring illegals, and the low rate of pay and benefits at Wal-Mart — serve to depress the labor market in communities in which the giant is located. That is a major factor in Los Angeles' opposition to the supercenter.

We live in a nation in which the real-dollar income of an average family has declined for years, while corporate profits and executive pay have skyrocketed.

The gap between rich and poor has widened at an alarming rate in the past 20 years. In 44 states, the gap has increased not only between rich and poor, but between rich and middle-class families. None of the six exceptions is a Northwest state. Oregon has one of the worst gaps, Washington is about average.

In some states, the inequity is staggering. In three of the nation's largest states — California, New York and Ohio — families in the lowest 20 percent bracket actually lost real income from 1978 to 2000. In 1999 dollars, the loss was between 5 and 6 percent. In those same states, the real income gain for the top 20 percent of families ranged from 37 to 54 percent.

Nationwide, from 1978 to 2000, the lowest 20 percent of families gained only $972 annually, or 7.1 percent; the top 5 percent gained $87,779, or 58.4 percent.

These findings, by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (www.cbpp.org), were before the Bush tax cuts and the current recession, both of which will further widen the gap.

You can't blame Sam Walton for this disparity, but operations like Wal-Mart feed off the impoverishment of America.

Sadly, there are byproducts in quality of life, often unseen until it is too late.

The greatest is the destruction of America's small and mid-sized towns, increasingly bereft of small businesses and dominated by big-box retailers — acres of barren asphalt parking lots, corporate managers on their way to the next-larger store, employees scrambling to keep low-wage jobs.

My wife's recently deceased aunt could no longer shop in the small Iowa town where she and her late husband ran a feed store. The store is closed, as are the other small businesses. The elderly woman had to drive — or be driven — past the empty shops several miles to Wal-Mart, the nearest place to get the basics of life.

Wal-Mart is like a neutron bomb, sucking life out of small towns, leaving buildings without the essence of civic life.

Those of us fortunate to earn middle-class incomes can make a choice, and shun Wal-Mart. The tragedy is that for an ever-increasing segment of America, the despicable race to the bottom has left no other choice than to shop for cheap, regardless of the consequences.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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