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Should Giving to Charity Be an Inoculation Against Criticism?

• May 02, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: edel/Shutterstock)

With charitable giving and profits so intertwined, the latter can’t be ignored when considering the former.

Last week, the New York Times reported that the Walton Family Foundation has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to educational causes around the country. In 2013 alone, the Foundation donated $164 million, mostly to the charter school movement.

The author of the Times article, Motoko Rich, writes: “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy as well as on which schools flourish and which are forced to fold. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing, and most divisive, trends in public education.”

Tentacles, indeed. The Walton Family has given money to charter schools—and to the think tanks, which promote them, to Teach for America, which staffs them, to university departments, which research them, and to advocacy groups, which lobby against politicians who oppose them.

The Waltons are the richest family in the world. They are nothing like the Waltons who appeared on American television in the 1970s and ’80s, who barely made a living with their lumber mill. These Waltons are worth more than $148 billion.

The neighbor who comes with his garden hose to put out the fire in my house is no hero if he is the one who set my house on fire or if his failure to support the local fire company is the reason it can no longer respond.

The Economic Policy Institute has said that the Waltons were as wealthy as the poorest 35 million families in America in 2007 and then as wealthy as the poorest 48.8 million families in America in 2010. The rich, as they say, got richer.

Walmart employs 1.2 million Americans, so if they were to divide their family fortune amongst their employees, each would receive around $105,384.62. Walmart has 4,205 stores in this country and runs another 633 Sam’s Clubs. Those stores and superstores make their money with “Every Day Low Prices,” undercutting the prices of their competition by around 14 percent.

These same stores have wages, like their prices, which are lower than the competition. Outside estimates place the hourly wage of Walmart workers at less than nine dollars, but let us take Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove at his word: “In fact, the average hourly wage for our associates, both full and part-time, is an average of $11.83 per hour.”

Walmart’s employees are not surprisingly, then, consumers of government aid. They receive health care through Medicaid. And food assistance through SNAP. Their children receive reduced or free lunches at school. Walmart’s employees qualify for these government benefits because even though they are employed, some of them full-time, Walmart does not pay them enough to live above the poverty line.

By the calculations of Americans for Tax Fairness, Walmart made $16 billion in profit last year, but benefited from “tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies estimated at more than $7.8 billion.” Those government benefits included $6.2 billion to employees through assistance programs, $1 billion in tax breaks and loopholes, and $607 million in avoided taxes by the Walton Family.

So when the Walton Family Foundation does something like give $164 million to educational causes, as it did last year, we might ask why they distribute aid to anyone but their own employees. Especially after the criticism Walmart received last Thanksgiving when a store in Ohio held a food drive for its own employees.

Why not, indeed? To ask such a thing is apparently offensive to many people quoted in the Times article about the beneficence of the Waltons. Dr. Marco Clark, who founded and runs the Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts, which received $250,000 from the Waltons in 2011, says that it is wrong to ask such questions.

“Those who want to criticize any philanthropy group for giving money to kids to change their futures,” Clark said, “there’s something wrong with them.”

When Dr. Marco Clark speaks of the futures of our children, it’s worth considering if the business model of Walmart has anything to do with their futures being imperiled. After all, the neighbor who comes with his garden hose to put out the fire in my house is no hero if he is the one who set my house on fire or if his failure to support the local fire company is the reason it can no longer respond.

Charity is not an inoculation against criticism, though it is so often used that way. Even if you are not opposed to the charter school movement, then you still might question a corporation whose charity is made possible by the exploitation of its employees. It is not only what a corporation does with its profits that matters, but how such profits are made.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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