Building strong communities could be a team sport

By Matt Witt

I got to thinking about some of my small-town neighbors when I read that the Denver Broncos football team, which is just starting its new season, was sold for $4.6 billion.

The principal new owners are Walmart heir Rob Walton and his daughter and her husband. Their ownership group also includes Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and now a board member of the hedge fund Makena Capital Management; Mellody Hobson, chair of the board of Starbucks and a director at JPMorgan Chase; and Lewis Hamilton, a race car driver worth an estimated $285 million. The Walton heirs are the world’s richest family, with a net worth of more than $200 billion.

When Walmart opened a store in our little town of Talent, Oregon, in 1988, it promised new and needed jobs. But some residents were concerned that local stores would close and wages for the new jobs would be low. Even today, Walmart’s minimum wage, including an increase announced last September, is only $12 per hour.

A congressional report based on data from the month before the Covid pandemic started found that Walmart’s pay and benefits were so low that it was the top employer of food stamp and Medicaid recipients in about half the states studied.

What does this mean in human terms? Near where I live, a young boy for years has woken up to an empty house, fed himself breakfast in front of the TV, and gotten himself to elementary school, and when he comes back there is still no one at home. He lives with his grandfather who leaves before dawn for his job at Walmart and then has to work a second job before he finally comes home in the evening.

I also know a neighboring family that operated the local hardware store. They had to close that business after Walmart came to town.

Then in 2012, Walmart left our town to establish a supercenter nearby, with a giant supermarket that competes with local food stores.

In 2019, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance released a study showing that Walmart’s supercenters reduce farmers’ share of income from food sales and drive down wages for people who harvest and process food.

As new owners of the Broncos, the Walton heirs can take advantage of a special tax loophole to deduct nearly the entire sale price against their income over a period of years. A 2021 study by the nonprofit news service ProPublica found that the billionaire who owns the Los Angeles Clippers uses loopholes like this to pay taxes at a lower rate than the workers who sell beer at the stadium concession stand.

So what can be done about the fact that communities, families, and farmers create so much wealth for billionaires that they’re able to spend billions on sports franchises?

Consumers could make it a point to patronize local stores and food producers, and also ask why a company like Costco can afford to set its minimum wage at $17 an hour when Walmart says it can’t.

Workers do have some bargaining power, and they could organize unions, as they are doing at more than 300 Starbucks locations so far in 36 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. Because of that pressure, Starbucks has felt it necessary to improve pay and sick leave even before union contracts are negotiated.

Cities, counties, and states could also choose to support development by local small businesses that pay living wages instead of offering incentives to low-wage chains.

All these steps require no longer accepting that a few people should have far more wealth than they could ever possibly need at the expense of many others who are struggling without affordable housing, health care, education, child care or other basics.

Building strong communities and families is a team sport, but billionaires and some giant corporations seem to be playing a different game. Isn’t it time we changed the rules so everyone can win?

Matt Witt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation in the West. He is a writer and photographer in rural Oregon.

This Walmart replaced the shuttered Walmart in Talen, OR, where writer Matt Witt is from

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/12/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/12/2022 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
09/12/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
09/12/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
09/12/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
09/12/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
09/13/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
09/13/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
09/13/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
09/14/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
09/15/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
09/13/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
09/15/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
09/14/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
09/15/2022 Taos News Taos NM
09/16/2022 Summit Daily frisco co
09/15/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
09/16/2022 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
09/17/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
09/17/2022 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
09/16/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
09/17/2022 Aspen Times Aspen CO
09/16/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
09/17/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
09/19/2022 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
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Derek Volkart
11 days ago

Great piece from someone in Talent, OR, not Talen. Please correct that error. And Billionaires should not exist.

Bonnie Ballantyne
9 days ago

I have never been a Walmart shopper but I have clearly seen the affects on local communities that you describe. I have also seen a very different situation occur in Playa del Carmen, MX. In 2006, my husband and I were in the process of furnishing a condo. We went to every place that had furniture for sale but there was no one selling the kind of furniture we were used to buying in the US. We ended up designing what we wanted and having it made in Cancun. A couple of years later Walmart opened in Playa and suddenly the city was the place for both Mexican and international companies to build a retail store, open a Bank, a restaurant, a hotel… Playa was touted as the fastest growing city in the Americas. It happened very rapidly. Where markets are extremely underserved, Walmart’s entry can trigger a cascading torrent of business creation and corporate expansion. But once, again Walmart profits at the expense of Walmart workers and overwhelmed small business owners.
Having Walton Family money associated with the Denver Broncos is not congruent with Colorado values.
I don’t see this proceeding smoothly.

Diana Roome
8 days ago

Thanks to Matt Witt for drawing attention once again to the urgent matter of corporate greed and grossly unfair tax codes. The issue really hits home in the stark contrast between the boy whose only family companion (a grandfather too) works all hours and the Walton family, dripping in their money. I live in Talent and am sad that there are families in our community who are robbed of basic rights, like companionship and sleep, by a culture that allows relentless avarice to win out time after time.

Andrew Seles
8 days ago

About 20 years ago, while visiting my sister in Northern California, my wife and I walked into a Walmart for the first time in our lives (it was basically the only store in that remote locale). A suburban New Yorker, my wife was shocked by the low price of a dress she found. “I can’t believe this dress is only ten dollars! she exclaimed. My response: “You have no idea how much that dress is costing us.” Keep up the good work, Matt!

Ben Leet
6 days ago

I found this article at the weekly newsletter of Inequality.org, Sept. 12, 2022. Unfortunately workers and the general public can do little, except vote wisely and become aware, also organize into labor unions. In California the legislature recently passed a minimum wage for fast food employees, $22/hour. But there will be a ballot approval process before it can become law, and it may lose as did the ballot approval for Uber drivers lost. We need a national $22/hour minimum for all companies employing more than 500 workers, and that would cover half of working America. Becoming very aware of this social injustice of low wages is important. Billionaires should not exist, they should be taxed out of existence. Look at “RealTime Inequality” a production of University of California economists. The average income for all adults in the U.S. (even those not working) is just under $89,000. Dividing the national income by all workers is $118,000. Yet half earn less than $34,612, and 33% earn less than $20,000 (see the Social Security Administration report on wages — https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2020). The average household income is $144,000, yet half have income below $69,000. I write a blog, Economics Without Greed, Part Two. Long and at times complicated essays about inequality. Some of the children I taught in Oakland elementary schools were dropped off at the day-care house at 6:30 in the morning and picked up later at 5 p.m. by their parents. What a world.

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