Saturday, August 16, 2014

Minimum Wage

The title is a reference to the They Might Be Giants song. Really. That's what I was thinking about when I wrote it.

The other day I reblogged this thing on Tumblr about Walmart earnings and the salaries they pay their workers. For the most part my pinko bleeding-heart liberal friends seemed to agree: Walmart makes $27 billion in profit in one year, they could pay their bottom million employees $10,000 a year more and still make a $17 billion profit. This situation and others like it illustrates the crazy imbalance of our economic system, in which a few specialists in e.g. financial markets are paid hundreds or even a thousand times as much as regular workers who do essential jobs.

There was at least one person, however, who took issue with the statistics involved, saying that it didn't seem likely that a million workers, almost half of Walmart's total employees (and they are the biggest single employer in the world, apparently), were scraping by on minimum wage.

Now, the original post isn't actually criticism of Walmart specifically, so much. The second half of the post makes clear that this is about larger issues with the system itself, and Walmart is just a symptom. Whether Walmart only has to pay $10,000 more to a hundred thousand employees or a million doesn't really change the point, at least in my mind. (Wikipedia figures for Walmart also suggest that it might make more sense to use the profits after tax, which is only $16 or $17 billion, depending on what year you're talking about.)

On the other hand, checking Walmart salary information that's publicly available does paint a picture that seems consistent with the original post. I'm just looking at the first page full of results, and there are some reasonable and even well-paid positions. (Want to do well at Walmart? Become a pharmacist!) But the bottom-tier jobs pay $8 or $9 an hour on average. Being generous, that's $18 to $20 thousand a year. The "Careers to explore" links on that page include "Overnight Stocker" at $19k a year, and "Sales Associate" at $18k yearly. That's well below the poverty line for a family of four.

From the results from that page, a little less than half of the jobs on offer from Walmart (2073 of the 4205 positions summarized) are hourly jobs that pay on average about $19 thousand a year. If this is in any way representative of the mix of positions in Walmart's 2 million employee workforce, then yes, roughly a million workers are making poverty-level wages working for a company that made at least $16 billion in profit in the last year, after tax. Even if the results are strongly skewed, we're still talking about hundreds of thousands of workers.

Then there's this article, in which statements from Walmart spokespeople themselves lead one to the conclusion that a bit more than half of Walmart associates make less than $25,000 a year. Statistics are easy to misuse, but whatever way I look at this, it still seems like a lot of people are struggling to get by while a very few reap rewards out of proportion with their contribution to the company, society, or, well, anything. So, to repeat:

You know, this ridiculous idea that a worker on Wall Street who earns tens of millions of dollars a year securitizing imaginary assets or doing high-frequency trading is worth 1,000 times as much as workers who earn tens of thousands of dollars a year educating our children, growing or serving us our food, throwing themselves into harm’s away to protect our life or property, that this difference reflects the true value or intrinsic worth of these jobs is nonsense.

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