Politics & Policy

Way to Go, D.C.

The Federal City’s attack on Walmart hurts its poorest residents most.

Vincent Orange is one of the members of the District of Columbia city council currently exulting in victory over the poor people of Washington. In an 8–5 vote, the council elected to prevent the “underserved” poor people of the District from getting fresh produce and other food, a wide variety of good-quality products at affordable prices, and some 1,800 jobs, many of them entry-level.

In short, the D.C. city council has defeated the mighty Walmart. After years of negotiations between the District and the company, which included commitments by Walmart to stock local products, fund transportation projects, and create a job-training program, among other things, the council passed a transparent anti-Walmart bill that will require all retailers with sales above $1 billion (wink, wink) and floor space above 75,000 square feet (nudge, nudge) to pay their employees a starting wage (they call it a “living wage”) of $12.50 per hour, or 50 percent more than the District’s minimum wage. (Unionized companies were exempt, along with others grandfathered in.) Walmart had warned that it would abandon plans to open three, and possibly all six, scheduled stores if the measure passed. “We don’t have to beg people to come to the District anymore,” Orange huffed.

No indeed. The poor people of the District of Columbia can well afford to be choosy. Other cities and states, like Virginia (unemployment rate 5.2 percent) or Houston (unemployment rate 6.1 percent), might feel constrained to offer incentives and inducements for big employers. Not D.C. As Jarvis Johnson, a leader of “Respect DC,” the organizer of the anti-Walmart movement, put it, “People won’t take another bully joining Congress in disrespecting our voices and our priorities.”

Just so. The District is practically inundated with offers of employment. That must be why the unemployment rate in D.C. is 8.5 percent — and 20.3 percent among blacks. That must explain the 37.8 percent unemployment rate for black teens, and the 43.3 percent rate for black male teens. It would explain why about a third of the District’s residents are currently receiving food stamps, Medicaid, or welfare — and why more than 18 percent are living below the poverty line.

By all accounts, many of the neighborhoods in which Walmart had planned to open its noxious stores, like those in Ward 7, are places that lack outlets selling fresh food and other products. In some cases, the Walmart stores were to be anchors for whole new developments. Never mind.

“The District has arrived,” crowed Johnson, justifying the strong-arming of the giant retailer. Council member Muriel Bowser, who voted against the measure, reflected sadly on one of the poor neighborhoods that will now be abandoned: “When I go to Skyland, we have not arrived,” she said. “That project has been some 20 years in the waiting.” It’s going to have to wait a little longer. Many of the residents of those areas will have to continue to do what they’ve been doing: incurring the inconvenience and expense of traveling to Maryland to shop at Walmart.

Seventy-three percent of District residents approved of Walmart’s plans to open six stores. They were apparently unaware that the hope of a job and a convenient place to buy broccoli, bicycles, diapers, bathing suits, and milk was some sort of surrender to the plutocrats. Far better for the neighborhood to remain devoid of clean, attractive stores — so much more authentic that way.

Walmart has long been a bogeyman among business-despising leftists like Respect DC (actually, the category is capacious enough to include about 75 percent of the Democratic party). As my colleague Jay Nordlinger observed a few years ago, far from providing “dead-end jobs” (a fiction anyway), Walmart is often the first step on the employment ladder. Two-thirds of its managers rise from the ranks of hourly employees.

Walmart isn’t perfect. Its low prices are partly attributable to vast imports from China — and it’s impossible to know which products are the work of slave labor and which are not. The company embraced Obamacare, perhaps because it knew it would hurt competitors more than itself. But the D.C. council’s punitive swipe at the chain is the perfect embodiment of liberal governance: rejecting jobs and low prices, and embracing continued poverty, all while calling it “respect.”

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


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