Remember when Walmart got panned for running a Thanksgiving food drive for its own employees—overlooking the irony of demonstrating noblesse oblige by asking customers to subsidize the workers the company itself impoverished? The retail giant took a more strategic approach last week when rolling out its latest do-gooder scheme: raising its base wage incrementally to $10 an hour. The move was widely praised even by labor groups—for lifting wages slightly closer to… well, what it should have been paying workers all along.
Still, the announced raise, to a $9 minimum, then rising to $10 an hour by early next year, isn’t chump change: for many, it means earning perhaps $1 or $2 more per hour, which, spread across an estimated half million workers, may generate a not-insignificant economic stimulus. Moreover, Walmart promises to offer more stable scheduling and boost some managers’ starting pay, as well—all measures that respond partially to the longstanding demands workers nationwide have aired in protests, petitions and lawsuits.
Some predict Walmart’s move could eventually raise the floor for the entire labor force, because the company controls a tremendous retail market share and helps set standards for pay scales across the supply chain, from shelf stockers to truck drivers. Though this market influence has been blamed for depressing wages, an uptick in Walmart’s base wage may theoretically encourage competitors to match its more favorable offerings on the labor market. That’s the business narrative painted by CEO Doug McMillon when he told CBS that Walmart’s motive was to “provide a great customer experience” and ensure that workers understood “how much we value them.”
But even with the raise, Walmart would still seem to peg the value of its workers at less than a living wage. The lowest-paid employees rely on billions in public benefits each year, including masses of food stamps, to scrape by. According to one recent analysis based on federal estimates, “a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between… $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.” If a part-time associate is working 1,000 hours a year—roughly half its workers are part-timers—the extra dollar an hour still might not make her financially self-sufficient, much less lift her family out of poverty.