Rick Wartzman.

“America is suffering from a wage crisis, and it’s not just at Walmart,” says Rick Wartzman, author of “Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Work & Economy

The American dream costs more than $29,000 a year

3 min read

Walmart has become a better corporate citizen, ‘Still Broke’ author says, but problems with U.S. labor practices run deeper than one company

Since it was founded in 1962, Walmart has been criticized for its anti-union policies, reliance on part-time workers, and low-paid labor. Things changed in 2015, when the retail giant raised its minimum wage above federal mandates for the first time and boosted employee benefits, remaking its image from “the most vilified employer in America to one that raises workers’ wages,” in the words of journalist Rick Wartzman.

Wartzman, who published “Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism” in November, spoke Friday at the Law School in an event sponsored by the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. He is co-president of Bendable Labs, a consulting firm focused on economic stability, mobility, and opportunity. As an editor at the Los Angeles Times in 2004, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Walmart.

“In the context of its own history, the company has evolved far more than many others,” Wartzman said. “Its transformation has been real, but this is real too: If you work at Walmart, even after everything it has done to improve your job, there is more than a fair chance that you would still be poor. The problem in the end isn’t that Walmart is evil. The problem is what good in America, or at least good enough, has come to look like.”

The company’s just-announced plan to raise its minimum hourly wage from $12 to $14 is not going to fix that problem, Wartzman said.

“The average Walmart worker, even after this latest increase, will now make a shade above $29,000 a year, and full-time workers will be making a little less than $33,000 a year,” he said. “Too many Walmart workers are on food stamps and Medicaid.”

It’s true, Wartzman said, that in the past decade the Arkansas-based company has become a better corporate citizen, improving its environmental record, donating food, and working to reduce drug prices. But it still trails some competitors, including Costco, when it comes to hourly compensation, a critical labor issue in part because many hourly workers in the U.S. lack access to retirement benefits and health insurance. Between 40 and 65 million Americans have trouble making ends meet, Wartzman said.

“America is suffering from a wage crisis, and it’s not just at Walmart,” he said. “Surveys of frontline workers at Disneyland found that more than 10 percent said they had been homeless in the previous two years and one-third couldn’t afford three meals a day. Two-thirds of Kroger supermarkets [employees] surveyed in 2021 said they weren’t not making enough money to cover their basic expenses.”

Wartzman supports a federally mandated hourly wage of no less than $20, which studies have suggested is the minimum necessary income for most U.S. families. He also called for expanding collective bargaining, buttressing worker protections, and offering affordable health care that is not tied to the workplace.

“Unless there is a government mandate, Walmart and any other company in America will never move far enough or fast enough to provide people with a genuine living wage,” he said. “More than anything, we should require the companies to pay their workers enough to live on.”