Matt Witt: Building strong communities could be a team sport

(Matt Witt | Writers on the Range) The Walmart in Medford, Oregon

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 JP Morgan Chase; and Lewis Hamilton, a race car driver worth an estimated $285 million. The Walton heirs are the world’s richest family, with 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 | Writers on the Range

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.