June 24, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: Walmart and Welfare: Low-wage employers aren’t to blame for food stamps.

David Tovar, Walmart’s vice president for corporate communications, certainly earned his paycheck last week by preparing a devastating Harpers magazine-style annotation of a column by the New York Times’s Timothy Egan. Egan denounced Walmart for poor corporate citizenship, a metaphor that he seems to take literally: “As long as the Supreme Court says that corporations are citizens, they may as well act like them.”

(As an aside, that’s an embarrassing error Tovar doesn’t correct. The court has never said corporations are citizens. Presumably Egan has in mind the court’s findings that the government may not infringe on free speech merely because it comes from an incorporated organization. But the right to free speech–unlike, say, the right to vote or run for office–belongs not only to citizens.) . . .

This columnist has no particular interest in Walmart, apart from shopping there on occasion, but we’d like to take a deeper conceptual look at Egan’s argument, which is far from original to him (we rebutted a version of it last month).

The complaint about food stamps (and other welfare programs) seems to be an effort at a cross-ideological appeal. Normally the left not only doesn’t object to food stamps but claims that objections should be out of bounds: In 2011, as the Daily Caller noted, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews accused Newt Gingrich of “talking in this dog whistle like the white racists” because Gingrich had called Barack Obama “the food stamp president” owing to the explosion in the number of beneficiaries during his presidency. But all taboos are off when liberals can vilify a big corporation, especially one they see as déclassé.

The notion is that food stamps amount to a sort of corporate welfare for Walmart and other employers of low-wage workers. But that makes no sense.

Walmart, after all, does not set eligibility standards for food stamps, a program created by Congress and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The benefits go to individuals with low incomes, whether they work or not. (True, Walmart is an indirect beneficiary of the food-stamp program in its capacity as a retailer of food. But its critics never give it credit for helping beneficiaries stretch their food-stamp dollars by selling food at low prices.)

Contrary to Egan’s needlessly repeated claim, Walmart does not force anyone to collect food stamps. Those who are eligible need not enroll in the program, and Walmart employees who are eligible would not lose their eligibility by quitting.

But it’s a Democratic talking point.