Wal-Mart’s Family Values: Who Cares About Kids?

Maybe people are so used to learning disturbing things about Wal-Mart that the latest news from America’s largest and most frightening corporation didn’t cause much of a ripple. There was a dearth of denunciation after The New York Times published a well-reported piece on Wal-Mart’s decision to put 40 percent of its workers on part-time and place a ceiling on what they can earn.

In addition, the giant retail chain is ordering its workers to be available for duty anytime, day or night, at its nearly 2,000 24-hour-a-day stores. The company wants to have people on tap for the evenings and weekends, when shopping is heaviest, but in the interest of complete manpower flexibility doesn’t want to provide its employees with a set work schedule. They are to be available whenever the phone rings. Since Wal-Mart has more than a million and a quarter workers, what it does has ramifications.

The havoc this must cause in families with children needs no elaboration. How do you arrange for childcare or after-school supervision if you must wait to be told when you’re going to be working? This is not a problem that Sam Walton’s five heirs are likely to face. One is safe in assuming that they can get a baby-sitter on short notice since, even after being decimated by the death tax, they have managed to salvage $75 billion for their very own, according to Forbes magazine’s latest listing of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

The domestic arrangements of the Walton family aside, this last announcement by the company is a reminder of the enormous power of business in shaping family life. Wal-Mart claims that its new work rules and pay scales are the same as that of other, though smaller, retailers, such as Sears and Target—which, if true, makes the effects all the worse.

Companies that make it impossible for parents to give their children the attention and supervision necessary for raising them properly are asking for trouble—if not for themselves, then for the larger society. We all know that the odds are that the less carefully a child is reared, the more ghastly the adult. And what a moment for the largest employer in the United States to intensify its anti-family policies.

I doubt that Wal-Mart thinks about such things—and if it does, it may have concluded that it makes no never mind if the next generation has a high proportion of slovenly brutes, lazy slobs, ignorant boobies, drugged-out morons, kleptomaniacs and just plain jerks. That this is the social equivalent of eating one’s seed corn does not seem to weigh on Wal-Mart’s executives. That its present employees’ children may form the population from which Wal-Mart will have to draw its future employees apparently is a concern to be left to future Wal-Mart executives. The idea is to make all the money you can now and fuck the future.

Since the founding of the Republic back in Federalist times, business has played a huge part in determining what American family life was and is. Nor has it always been deleterious. The first cotton mills in New England drew for their workers farm girls, thereby opening up for them a richer and more exciting life than any to be found in remote New Hampshire villages. For more than a century, business provided Americans with labor-saving devices which freed them from a life that was accurately described as one of never-ending toil.

From Andrew Carnegie, who made the cheap iron pipe which put running water in our homes, through John D. Rockefeller, whose kerosene lamps pushed back the night, to Bill Gates’ computers, there is no end to the benefits that business has brought—but it has come with consequences, and not all of them are to be desired. Business has reshaped and strained and sometimes nearly destroyed family and community.

The social reorganization stemming from first the industrialization and then the commercialization of society has wrought huge changes in family life. Dinner, the big noontime meal, has vanished. Breakfast was the next to go, and now, in millions of homes, the family supper where all sit down together is a once-a-week activity. The ancient rituals built around food are no more in an era where fewer and fewer people know how to prepare food other than taking it out of a box. Larger houses, TVs and computers in every bedroom have all but abolished family life in the evenings. In families where every member over 16 has a car, the relationship between its members bears no resemblance to that of 50, much less 150, years ago.

The changes caused by the demands of business organizations took the father out of the home in the 19th century and have all but marginalized the father in the 21st. The same may be happening to the mother. In this century, the home, as a sanctuary from the world or a place in which families decided the shape and content and tempo of life, is all but gone, as the corporations penetrate everywhere and contest with parents over who gets to instill values, standards and taste in children.

Advertising has long since penetrated the schools—once thought to be a place where commerce was barred—and now, with the coming of the iPod, commercial messages with their inculcating beliefs as well as tastes will flow into young heads every minute of the day. Against this, parents with different ideas and other values usually struggle in vain. A family that insists on raising its children its way has little choice but to home-school and live in a manner that will brand it as eccentric and not exactly American.

It has taken half a century to begin to hold corporations to account for the physical damage they may have caused in the course of business. Even so, as BP’s recent record of environmental injury or Merck’s performance with Vioxx makes clear, these large organizations are by no means closely or successfully regulated.

The social damage they may do does not count, save for rare exceptions like the child-labor or family-leave laws. The new Wal-Mart anti-family policies are brutal and crass, but the whole tendency of business is in the same direction: The idea that a company has an obligation to pay enough “to raise a family on”—which once had some influence on business practice—has vanished entirely.

Short of those in the billionaire-millionaire class, everybody else in the working world is under constant pressure to put in longer hours and take shorter vacations. The right to create an inclusively anti-family, child-hurtful social environment via advertising power goes undisputed, unless it is by a few funny-looking people who are considered only slightly less crackpot than conspiracy theorists.

If Wal-Mart is the enemy of the young, it is also, so it appears, the enemy of the old. The company is accused of pushing older longtime employees into quitting because they make slightly more money than younger workers with the same productivity. The means used to get the geezers out the door includes such tricks as taking away the stools they sit on when checking out customers. Done on a grand enough scale by the nation’s largest employers, the consequence might be to throw a large class of still-productive persons onto one form of public charity or another—but apparently the effects of what Wal-Mart does beyond the parking lot gets no more than a shrug of the shoulders in the executive suite.

On the other hand, even though the Walton heirs don’t need more billions, Wal-Mart is a private company performing valuable services. Using public power to make it change the way it conducts its affairs carries risks and unpleasant consequences of its own.

But if, in the course of running their own businesses, these gigantic corporations run ours, even if by indifference and inadvertence, the costs are intolerable. Nothing much will be done about it, however. Like global warming, the changes happen, and people are confused and do not begin to connect the cause to the effect until the process is well underway. Nobody can agree on what to do about it, and when agreement is finally achieved, the will and power to carry it out isn’t there.

One consolation of sorts: Just as the billionaires who did so much to ruin the environment will choke in the hot, poisoned air with rest of us, so too will they have to contend with a generation whose parents were sucked out of the home by big business.

Wal-Mart’s Family Values: Who Cares About Kids?