Having been raised in a small-business family and now running my own small outfit, I always find it heartwarming to see hardworking, enterprising folks get ahead.
So I was really touched when I read that, even in these hard times, one extended family with three generations active in their enterprise is hanging in there and doing well. Christy, Jim, Alice, Robbie, Ann and Nancy are their names — and with good luck and old-fashioned pluck, they have managed to build a fairly sizeable family nest egg. In fact, it totals right at $103 billion for the six of them. Yes, six people, 100-plus billion bucks. That means that these six hold more wealth than the entire bottom 40 percent of American families — a stash of riches greater than the combined wealth of some 127 million Americans.
How touching is that?
The "good luck" that each of them had is that they were either born into or married into the Walton family, which makes them heirs to the Walmart fortune. That's where the "pluck" comes in, for the world's biggest retailer plucks its profits from the threadbare pockets of low-wage American workers and impoverished sweatshop workers around the world.
Four of the Walton heirs rank as the sixth, ninth, 10th and 11th richest people in our country, possessing a combined net worth of $95 billion. But bear in mind that "net worth" has no relationship to worthiness — these people did nothing to earn their wealth; they just inherited it. And, as Walmart plucks more from workers, the heirs grow ever luckier. In recent years, while the wealth of the typical family plummeted by 39 percent, the Waltons saw their wealth grow by 22 percent — without having to lift a finger.
How odd then that the one-percenters (on in this case, the 1/100 of one-percenters) are hailing themselves as our country's "makers," while snidely referring to workaday people as "takers." With the Waltons, it's the exact opposite.
Indeed, you'd think that the Bentonville billionaires would realize that their fortunes are tied directly to these disparage. Apparently, they're unaware that America's economic recovery cannot truly be measured in the performance of the stock market but instead should be gauged by the sock market.
Most economists, pundits and politicos see today's boom in stocks and say: "See, the recovery is going splendidly!" But they should go to such stores as Kohl's, Target and even the Walton's very own Walmart and find out what's selling.
The answer would be socks. Even in the present back-to-school season (usually the second-biggest buying spree of the year), sales are sluggish at best, with customers foregoing any spending on their kids except for socks, underwear and other essentials.
This is not only an economic indicator but also a measure of the widening inequality in America. The highly ballyhooed "recovery" has been restricted to the few at the top who own nearly all of the stocks, get paychecks of more than $100,000 a year and shop at upscale stores. But meanwhile, the many don't have any cash to spare beyond necessities. Walmart's chief financial officer seems puzzled by this reality. There is, as he put it last week, "a general reluctance of customers to spend on discretionary items."
Golly, sir, why are those ingrates reluctant? Could it be because job growth in our supremely wealthy country has been both lackluster and miserly? Yes — jobs today are typically very low paying, part-time and temporary with no benefits. Mr. Walmart-man should know this, since his retail behemoth is the leading culprit in downsizing American jobs to a poverty level in order to further enrich those at the very top, including Christy, Jim, Alice, Robbie, Ann and Nancy. In recent months, corporate honchos at the Arkansas headquarters have directed Walmart managers not to hire at all or to concentrate on hiring temporary and part-time workers, while cutting the hours of many full-time employees
Since the Great Recession "ended" in 2009, Walmart has slashed 100,000 people from its U.S. workforce, even as it added some 350 stores. In addition, while the giant banked more than $4 billion in profit just in the last three months, the chieftains changed the corporate rules to make it harder and costlier for employees to get Walmart's meager health care plan.
Yet, executives wonder why customers aren't buying "discretionary" items. Hello — even your own workers can't afford to buy anything in the store besides socks.
(Jim Hightower has been called American's most popular populist. The radio commentator and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is author of seven books, including "There's Nothing In the Middle of Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos" and his new work, "Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow".)