Arkansas' Real Welfare Queen

Acworth, Georgia is way too far north in Cobb County to use Marietta's Big Chicken as a landmark. You used to be able to give directions by telling people to look for the Wal-Mart Supercenter on North Cobb Parkway. But pretty soon you won't even be able to do that, because there will be a second Wal-Mart Supercenter on North Cobb Parkway, just three miles away.

Statewide, we've already got 93 Wal-Mart Supercenters, 19 regular-sized Wal-Marts, 21 Sam's Clubs and nine distribution centers. We've got Wal-Marts out the wal-zoo.

Some people are whining about having Wal-Marts back to back in Acworth. They complained that they didn't get to object to the City Council about the big new store. Well, too bad for them! This is a new America. People don't count. Corporations do.

The land in Acworth already was zoned for big-box retailers. Wal-Mart just strolled in and fired that mother up.

In other communities, the company might not have it so easy, because a lot of ordinary Americans have awakened to the locust-like nature of Wal-Mart. The stores swoop in, kill off mom-and-pop businesses, and empty small town centers.

Meanwhile, to save every last nickel, the boys in Bentonville force their contractors to set up operations in China. Then, Wal-Mart merrily abandons stores when they grow old, leaving them behind like used condoms on the roadside.

The formula works like a charm. Wal-Mart now rakes in nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars annually in sales and plans to triple in size.

Just last month, the Supreme Court helped the company clear a hurdle that might have gotten in the way of that growth by ruling that the government can take your property to make way for a new Wal-Mart or Home Depot. Some conservative commentators tried to paint the court's action as a "liberal" decision. The hell it is. It is a pro-corporate decision. It benefits big business. And just in case you haven't been paying attention, big business and big government have merged under President Bush.

That kind of teamwork isn't always in America's best interests. PBS recently re-ran its "Frontline" special about Wal-Mart, showing a mass company meeting that was as red-white-and-blue as the Republican National Convention. But if you look beyond the flag-waving, you can see that Wal-Mart regularly ditches patriotism in its ruthless drive for the bottom line, like the time it sided with the Chinese against a Tennessee TV maker who accused China of dumping TVs in the United States.

The problem with Wal-Mart and other giant corporations sending so many American dollars to China is this: The mobsters who run China's government aren't necessarily our friends. A Chinese general said last week that his country is prepared to nuke us if we interfere with its potential takeover of Taiwan, according to the Financial Times. And even without nuclear war, China is crushing us in economic warfare. Its foreign reserves are on track to top $1 trillion next year. China is going to own our sorry, credit-card-addicted asses.

What really makes me sick is the way Wal-Mart preys on governments here at home. The flag-waving company, based in Arkansas, has become the welfare queen of Georgia. There are 51,821 Wal-Mart employees -- or "associates" -- in the state, or 1.15 percent of the total civilian work force of about 4.5 million.

The funny thing is that, while Wal-Mart has 1.15 percent of Georgia's work force, in 2002, children of its employees made up more than 6 percent of all the kids covered by PeachCare, the state program that provides health care coverage to the children of the working poor.

Of a total of 166,000 children covered by PeachCare, 10,261 had a parent working for Wal-Mart in 2002. And Wal-Mart's numbers are way out of line when you bring other companies into the picture. The No. 2 company on the list, Publix, had only 734 children of employees on PeachCare. The average PeachCare recipient costs $1,274 a year. If you multiply that by Wal-Mart's 10,261, you get a total of more than $13 million in health care costs borne by Georgia taxpayers.

"That is a type of reverse welfare or corporate welfare," says former Gov. Roy Barnes, now an attorney in Marietta. "I provide insurance for my employees. Why shouldn't [Wal-Mart] be providing it?"

A union that represents retail workers recently blasted Wal-Mart's deadbeat approach to employee health care at a state Capitol news conference. The United Food and Commercial Workers International is among the many unions whose organizing efforts have been swatted aside by the retail giant.

"The Wal-Mart model is to save as much money as it possibly can for the consumer, but it's saving money on the one hand and taking it out of their pockets on the other by forcing folks onto state-funded programs," says Steve Lomax, president of UFCW Local 1996. "They're asking taxpayers to pay for what employers normally pay."

Lomax argues that many Wal-Mart workers simply can't afford the company's health care, which can cost up to 10 percent of their salaries.

Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst directed me to a statement on the company's website. It calls the UFCW's comments part of a "smear campaign."

The company notes that it offers eight different health care options with premiums starting at less than $40 a month for single coverage and $155 per month for family coverage. It also claims to have a track record of getting employees off Medicaid, the government's health coverage program for the poor.

But the fact remains that Wal-Mart associates seek PeachCare benefits in grossly disproportionate numbers.

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, introduced a bill earlier this year to make the state keep records of the employers of people whose kids use PeachCare. That would help track the extent to which companies are using the taxpayer-funded program for their own corporate welfare.

She couldn't even get a hearing on the bill this year but hopes to bring it to light next session. In the meantime, she says, she's shopping at Target and Costco -- two companies that offer better insurance plans for their workers.

Wal-mart is doomed. That's my theory, anyway. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" philosophy won't survive the coming oil crisis. Soon, perhaps as early as this fall, the world will have gulped up half its oil. On the down slope after "peak oil," we'll encounter enormous economic strife and more oil wars like the one in Iraq.

"Wal-Mart and its imitators will not survive the oil market disruptions to come," says James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. "It will only take mild-to-moderate disruptions in the supply and price of gas to put Wal-Mart and all operations like it out of business. And it will happen."

People like Kunstler and me might want to savor the sweet justice of a Wal-Mart collapse. But an energy catastrophe also would mean human suffering on a grand scale.

Even now, with the peak oil theory out in the open, our leaders seem incapable of grasping a future that differs in substantial ways from the glorious present. They aren't capable of seeing what's coming.

The irony is that, if Kunstler's right, we may return to the small-town life that we allowed Wal-Mart to destroy in our mad dash to save money on cheap junk from China -- junk we didn't need in the first place.

If he's wrong, and Wal-Mart does triple in size, I guess Georgia taxpayers will have to cough up three times as many tax dollars to pay for the medical expenses of the children of Wal-Mart associates.

But who knows? By then, we might all be on acupuncture.

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