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Walmart at 50: Why Their Growth has been America’s Loss

Amy Traub

America used to be a nation that made things. Walmart – the nation’s largest employer and one of our most profitable corporations – played a key role in why we no longer do. Of course, this isn’t the official message Walmart wants to promote as it breaks out the confetti to celebrate its 50th birthday this week. Instead, the retail giant has unveiled a peppy website celebrating the occasion and is hailing the opening of its 10,000th store. Time magazine has marked the event by cataloguing “Ten Ways Walmart Changed the World" from altering the retail landscape to pioneering data-driven management.

But as we celebrate not just Walmart’s birthday but the nation’s this week, it’s worth pondering the mega-retailer’s impact on America specifically. We got “everday low prices” but also a nation of growing inequality in which fewer people could afford to a shop anywhere else. In fact, Walmart workers and other stakeholders have launched their own Walmart at 50 effort designed to make the case that “the America Walmart helped to create isn’t working for most of us.” Walmart’s contribution to the downgrading of retail jobs has been well-explored, yet fewer have considered the company’s impact on workers it never even directly employed – the Americans who once made the United States a manufacturing powerhouse.

That’s why today Demos released a list of our own: NOT Made in America: Top 10 Ways Walmart Destroys US Manufacturing Jobs. From promoting domestic sweatshops to buying millions of goods that weren’t made in the America to disincentivizing the innovation that made our nation prosper, we chronicle how Walmart has wielded its tremendous market power in ways that eliminate good-paying manufacturing jobs and lower labor standards throughout its entire supply chain.

With the great resources at its disposal, Walmart could afford to take the high road, supporting good manufacturing jobs in America by allowing for higher wages and more investment in its supply chain and paying its own employees—from retail “associates” to warehouse workers and cleaning contractors—a living wage. That would set the template for a new American economy, one in which Americans might once again make things and also find greater dignity and stability in selling them. From  Walmart on its 50th birthday to America’s on its 236th that would be a gift worthy of celebration.