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How the Retail Industry Keeps People of Color in Poverty

The Nation

The second largest source of jobs for black people in the country is also one of the worst industries to work in. Although big retailers tout their “entry level” positions as a path to the middle class, retail work is built on dead-end jobs that perpetuate racial inequality.

A new report by the think tank Demos and the NAACP shows that the retail industry, a leading source of employment in the post-recession "recovery,” is creating many more bad jobs than good ones—and blacks and Latinos are stuck in the lowest-paid positions with the least opportunity for advancement.


Walmart and the Gap have both recently touted plans to raise wages incrementally to $10 an hour. But Demos says the industry can go farther by lifting wages to $15 while guaranteeing a full 40-hour workweek. Although higher wages could theoretically force employers to compensate by either shrinking their workforce or cutting hours, studies show that providing full-time work with stable wages—as has been proposed in federal and local legislation—actually improves productivity and reduces turnover. According to Demos analyst and co-author of the report Catherine Ruetschlin, Walmart has the capacity to raise wages and hours: “If Walmart needs to fill 80 hours of work time per week they can do it with 2 workers or 20.” From a business standpoint, she adds, “setting standards for work that share the cost of working between employer and employee…is beneficial for employment stability and for labor in general.”

The retail industry will keep expanding as a pillar of the low-wage economy, as will the racial wealth gap, until the dominant retail companies realize that the same business model that is ravaging communities of color is eroding its own bottom line.