On the Wal-Mart Money Trail
Chuck Collins of Responsible Wealth, a group of well-off people who strongly favor the estate tax, observes that the Waltons sometimes say the estate tax is not a priority for the family. "That may be true from their perspective," he says, "but it's a bit like an elephant saying it's really not interested in stepping on anthills. When you're America's wealthiest family, you are a philanthropic and lobbying heavyweight even on your minor interests." For instance, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, one of a handful of Democrats who draw checks from the Waltons, supports estate-tax repeal (or crippling "reform"). "Senator Lincoln will wax eloquent about the small farmers of Arkansas," Collins says, "but what's really on her mind is Walton."
In addition to campaigning specifically against the estate tax, the Waltons also give money to groups that generally favor tax giveaways to the rich, like Americans for Tax Reform. And the Waltons have already reaped the benefits of tax policies enacted by the conservatives they helped put in office: This year Bush's dividend tax cut will save the family $51 million, according to Lee Farris, an estate-tax expert with the Boston-based United for a Fair Economy.
The Waltons' philanthropy--and their hostility to paying their fair share of taxes--also needs to be viewed in the context of tax subsidies Wal-Mart has received for building new stores, which Good Jobs First places at more than $1 billion, an estimate that does not include the many other ways taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart stores, for instance, through numerous forms of public assistance--Medicaid, Food Stamps, public housing--that often allow workers to subsist on Wal-Mart's low wages. A report by the House Education and Workforce Committee conservatively places the latter at $420,750 per store; the Wal-Mart Foundation's per-store charitable giving is just 11 percent of that amount ($47,222).
In addition to spending on Republican candidates, the Waltons have lavished funds on right-wing ideological institutions--organizations that serve the interest of wealthy individuals and lawless antiunion companies like Wal-Mart. From 1998 through 2003 the WFF contributed $25,000 to the Heritage Foundation, $15,000 to the Cato Institute, $125,000 to the Hudson Institute, $155,000 to the Goldwater Institute, $70,000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, $300,000 to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, $185,000 to the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy and $350,000 to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
Both the family and the company have made education a major funding priority. Many of the WFF's education gifts have a distinct ideological tilt, emphasizing a "free market" approach to education reform, a vision the late John Walton embraced with particular enthusiasm. The WFF funds advocacy groups promoting conservative school "reform"--otherwise known as privatization--like the Center for Education Reform and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, as well as the actual programs these groups champion: charter schools and voucher programs. (The BAEO did not return calls for this article.)
Among such projects, the Waltons tend to fund the most mind-numbing and cultish, giving in 2003 alone nearly $3 million to Knowledge Is Power (KIPP) schools and millions more to other schools using the KIPP curriculum, which emphasizes regimented recitation rather than critical or creative thinking. Particularly widespread in low-income neighborhoods, such schools seem bent on disciplining and exhorting the poor rather than developing human potential (much like Wal-Mart as a workplace, with its relentless company cheers and dead-end jobs). Several years ago the principal of New York City's John A. Reisenbach Charter School, which uses the KIPP curriculum and received $118,000 from the Waltons in 2003, told me proudly, as we watched fidgety second graders chant meaningless slogans, "We are getting them ready for business."