Reuters

The awkward ethics of a Walmart food drive.

There are two ways to interpret the situation at the Canton, Ohio, Walmart that has created an uproar around the company over the last 24 hours. In an area of the store accessible only to employees, colorful bins have been collecting typical food-bank fare. The sign mounted on the table: "Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner."

The donations are from Walmart employees, intended for other Walmart employees.

The most kind interpretation narrows on the generosity of co-workers aiding each other in need. But, unsurprisingly, since the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote about the story on Monday, this small in-house food drive has come to symbolize everything wrong with Walmart as a company and low-wage work on the whole.

What kind of company would put its own employees in the position of leaning on each other for food? It doesn't help that Walmart itself seems not to understand this implication ("this is part of the company's culture to rally around associates," a befuddled spokesman told the PD). And it certainly doesn't help that it's so easy to image these bins full of the very groceries that Walmart stocks itself.

There's always a danger in investing single anecdotes with universal significance (we should no more rewrite minimum-wage laws on one Walmart food drive than we should cut food stamps in the name of one obnoxious surfer). But this does raise a larger issue about the high cost of low-wage jobs, and the people who bear it.

If Walmart were giving a bin of Thanksgiving trimmings to every employee, that story would still raise eyebrows for its suggestion that the company's employees need such aid in the first place. But this touches a deeper nerve for a different reason. It's one thing when the poor must ask for aid from the well-off. It's another when the poor are forced to count on others who are no better off than themselves. And it's yet another for low-wage coworkers to support each other within the context of a company that's indisputably well-off.

Here, the costs of low-wage work are being borne by both hungry families and the modestly better-off coworkers who can spare enough to help them (this is an institutionalized practice at Walmart, which has an Associates in Critical Need Trust that employees can give to for the benefit of each other). It's also being borne by Walmart customers and the Canton community at large, people whose tax dollars help pay for the food stamps used by low-wage workers.

Last month, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley calculated that the public annually spends on average $1.04 billion in food stamp benefits, and $1.91 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit payments to the families of people who work in the comparably low-waged fast-food industry (how much of that aid, one wonders, is ultimately spent in Walmart's grocery aisles?).

Everyone, it seems, is bearing the cost of low-wage work here – in hungry families, in empty pantries, in public need – but Walmart itself. The issue is not really that Walmart doesn't pay its employees enough, but that everyone else must pay for that decision. Including plenty of people who can ill afford it.

Meanwhile, as the company opens two new stores in Washington, D.C., 38 applicants have lined up for every one of its job openings.

Top image of protesters outside a Walmart in Los Angeles: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.

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