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Originally published Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 6:12 AM

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Needy shoppers a part of Wal-Mart wage fight

Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray’s decision to veto a law requiring Wal-Mart Stores to offer higher pay brought focus to the flip side of the living-wage debate: that Wal-Mart’s customers are often as economically disadvantaged as employees earning its low hourly wages.

The Washington Post

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"Food stamps covered $304 of the haul, with boxed and frozen foods accounting for... MORE

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WASHINGTON — Four bus rides to and from his northeast Washington apartment to the Walmart in Landover, Md. often consume half of Jimmy Pegues’ day. But since a heart attack last year pushed the used-car salesman into retirement and onto Social Security, biweekly trips for $4 generic prescriptions have become a lifeline.

“I come to Walmart — religiously,” said Pegues, 64, who saves $110 a month over pharmacies in the District of Columbia. “For me, at this point, and at this time in my life, the price is the most important thing.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s decision this month to veto a law requiring Wal-Mart Stores to offer higher pay pitted support for a “living wage” against a desire to spur investment and job growth in the city. But for thousands who cross the city line every day on their way to the Landover Walmart, the battle was about something more basic: low prices.

Gray’s decision brought focus to the flip side of the living-wage debate: that Wal-Mart’s customers are often as economically disadvantaged as those who scrape by on its hourly wages.

According to Wal-Mart, District of Columbia residents in the past 12 months spent more than $40 million at the company’s stores in suburban Maryland and Virginia. The company did not provide information about those shoppers, but nationwide Walmart shoppers typically earn lower-middle-class wages, live paycheck-to-paycheck and say jobs and rising food and energy costs are their greatest concerns. One-fifth of them have no credit and use only cash when they shop, according to company spokesman Steven Restivo.

In Washington, the demand for Wal-Mart Stores’ prices may be even higher. Nearly 24 percent of the city’s residents receive food stamps, more than anywhere in the nation. A recent study also ranked the District of Columbia with a higher rate of food insecurity than any state except New Mexico, with more than 30 percent of children living in households without adequate food supply or the resources to keep groceries in stock.

A steady stream of vehicles with District of Columbia license plates — on average, once a minute — told the tale on a recent evening at the Walmart in Landover. Three miles from the District of Columbia border, Michelle Smith, an unemployed mother of seven from northeast Washington, loaded a gallon of cooking oil and a 10-pound bag of sugar into her sister’s car — part of $344 in groceries she needed to stretch for the rest of September.

Smith’s 14-year-old daughter, Nicole, sat between a wall of 64 rolls of toilet paper and a 48-count box of brown sugar Pop-Tarts. Food stamps covered $304 of the haul, with boxed and frozen foods accounting for most, since it would be three to four weeks before Smith’s sister could bring her back.

On Sept. 12, Gray vetoed the so-called Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have required retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating District of Columbia stores of at least 75,000 square feet to pay their employees a “living wage” — no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council failed by one vote to override his veto.

The mayor said the measure would have harmed Washington residents, depriving them of access to Wal-Mart’s inexpensive groceries and other sale items. He said it would have blocked hundreds of jobs planned for new stores — and turned off other retail chains that might have decided the cost of doing business in D.C. was too high.

Washington has gone the way of most other major U.S. cities including Chicago, which after its own existential moment over Wal-Mart wages in 2006, now has nine of the stores and a 10th under construction.

For his veto, Gray was lambasted by labor leaders and clergy for bowing to corporate interests and Wal-Mart, which had threatened to walk away from at least three of its six planned D.C. stores.

But in an interview after the veto, Gray said the city’s lack of available and affordable groceries and retail outweighed any urge he had in setting a national precedent.

“One city,” said Gray, using his slogan for city unity, “is being able to have reasonable access for people wherever they are, wherever they live, and nobody can make that argument, frankly, about access to some of these amenities. You look at areas of Ward 7 and 8, they are really food deserts, retail deserts.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a lead sponsor of the bill for many years, still strongly disagrees that more Walmarts with their low-paying jobs are the answer. Walmarts moving into the District of Columbia are sure to displace local grocers and retailers, he said, and there’s no guarantee that Washington residents, and not commuters from Maryland or Virginia, would get the work.

“If the answer is we perpetuate low-wage jobs, we’re not helping people,” Mendelson said.

The legislation brought to the fore as strongly as at any time during Gray’s nearly three-year tenure the city’s fault lines over race, class and opportunity.

Rebekah Peeples Massengill, author of “Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century,” said that Wal-Mart’s low wages have helped perpetuate an economy where people depend on the stores’ inexpensive goods.

Roy and Precious Borlend wait for rush-hour traffic to quiet down along 16th Street outside their apartment in northwest Washington when they need diapers and wipes, or milk and juice, for their 2-year-old son. They pack up their minivan and trek 30 minutes to a suburban Maryland Walmart.

“I love and hate Walmart. You save on everything — everything — but I hate feeling like it is the only place I can buy things because of that,” said Precious Borlend, a public preschool teacher.

The Borlends left with $100 worth of merchandise in bulging bags, and saved perhaps $10 or $20 toward their elusive first home.

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