Posted by Jay Livingston
Do poor people make unwise decisions – decisions that may have caused their poverty, decisions that aggravate that hardship? In the thread of comments on the previous post, there was some speculation that many of the poor, perhaps even a majority, were making these kinds of bad choices, perhaps because they were ignorant or, more likely, because they lacked the proper virtues and because government welfare allowed them to do so. In any case, the argument continues, the Heritage Foundation has told us that the poor in America are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed.
Maybe it’s time to go back to Wal-Mart. Three months ago Bill Simon, the Wal-Mart CEO spoke at a Goldman-Sachs Retail Conference, and some of what he said got picked up in the popular press – NPR’s “Planet Money,” Salon, and elsewhere. He talked about
an ever-increasing amount of transactions being paid for with government assistance.This snapshot of Wal-Mart at midnight doesn’t quite fit with the widespread and tenacious the image of the poor as drug addicted, lazy, heedless spawners of children that they won’t even feed a bowl of cereal to in the morning, all supported by a cushy welfare system that subsidizes their profligate, unwise, and unvirtuous ways.
And you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it's real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when electronic -- government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.
And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they've been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours -- come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m.
But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.
Shortage of jobs was also two to four times more likely than these other causes to be voted as “not a cause of poverty.”
The survey was done in 2001. Perhaps the current high rates of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, have changed perceptions about the poor and the causes of poverty (though probably not at the Heritage Foundation).