Thinking About Religion
Volume 9 (2011)

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Sam Walton’s Gospel Meets the Christian Gospel:
A Theological Analysis of Wal-Mart Remuneration Practices

Margie Harmon
Davidson College

For some Americans, the opening of a Wal-Mart sale on Black Friday amounted to a matter of life and death.  Several minutes prior to the scheduled 5:00 AM opening time, over 2,000 bargain hunters charged the doors of a New York Wal-Mart, trampling a thirty-four year-old employee to death as he and several other co-workers attempted to open the doors.  The scope of the catastrophe widened as emergency workers rushed four other shoppers, including a twenty-eight year old pregnant customer, to a nearby hospital for injury treatment.  Despite prolonged investigative efforts, assigning responsibility to any particular party for this tragedy remains a complex task.  Nassau county police say that Wal-Mart lacked sufficient security, yet store representatives contend that they had taken precautionary safety measures prior to the stampede by enlisting the assistance of backup security.  Nassau police also reported that, based on security camera footage, the individual perpetrators responsible for physically stomping on the victim acted intentionally.  Further complicating the matter, the crowd itself behaved shockingly, one witness describing them as “savages.”  Even after police informed shoppers of the fatality of the Wal-Mart employee, customers vehemently resisted attempts by security to clear the premises, screaming such protestations as, “I’ve been in line since yesterday morning!”[1] 

Justice may seem to require that a particular party be held accountable for this completely avoidable catastrophe, but sorting through this ethical quagmire makes reaching some sort of just resolution virtually impossible.  Compounding this frustration is the somber realization that the ambiguity that hindered Nassau County police’s ability to bring justice to this tragedy, typifies society’s relationship with Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart has become a lightning rod of societal conflict, and debate, with poll results indicating the American people have deeply divided attitudes towards this multinational retailer.[2]  Yet responsible citizens, and in particular responsible Christians, cannot simply resign themselves to an ambivalent attitude given the unfathomable magnitude and influence of this corporate giant. Wal-Mart currently holds the title of the world’s largest corporation and largest private employer,[3] with more Americans sporting the Wal-Mart blue smock than the U.S. army uniform.[4]  One-third of Americans shop at Wal-Mart each week, and in 2003, eighty-two percent of households purchased merchandise from this retailer.[5] Not only does Wal-Mart touch millions of lives on a personal level, to some degree the economic health of the entire world economy hinges upon the success of its largest retailer.  This past year, Wal-Mart ranked as the fifth most profitable organization,[6] and its sales volume for a single day came in ahead of the gross domestic products of thirty-six countries.[7]

Given its global significance, Wal-Mart’s behavior constitutes a vital component in any discussion of economic justice.  More specifically, a Christian based analysis of this company requires a theological examination of the way in which Wal-Mart’s conduct affects the wellbeing of God’s creation and God’s creatures.  Concerns include the way in which Wal-Mart’s activities affect the environment, retail demographics of local communities[8], international labor conditions, and fair treatment of minority groups.  One issue of special concern to Christians is an examination of Wal-Mart’s employee remuneration policies.  The level at which Wal-Mart compensates its workforce influences its other business practices, including the issues mentioned above.  Moreover, Christian thinkers have previously concerned themselves with the importance of adequate compensation, making this avenue of analysis a pertinent staring point.

Christian Standards for Just Compensation

From the slums of the industrial poor at the turn of the century to modern-day inner city Chicago streets, various Christian thinkers have fought against exploitative pay practices.  John A. Ryan broke new ground in 1907 with the publication of his dissertation, in which he explicitly outlined and formalized the form such just remuneration practices would take.  Based on the God-given sanctity of personhood, Ryan insisted that every laborer has the right “to at least a decent livelihood: that is, he has a right to so much of the requisites of sustenance as will enable him to live in a manner worthy of a human being.”[9]  Ryan’s fellow pioneer social justice advocate Walter Rauschenbusch shared this appreciation for the value of individual persons and consequentially, a concern for just pay practices.  Rauschenbusch’s conception of the Kingdom of God, informed by his pastoral experiences with New York immigrants stricken by poverty in the 1880s, highlighted the intrinsic worth of persons, for he recognized that “Jesus worked on individuals and through individuals.”[10] He believed that the Kingdom could not be realized until justice had been actualized for all individuals for “the perfection of human society cannot be attained without changed lives to attain it.”[11]  For Rauschenbusch, fair wages constituted a manifestation of justice on the personal level in that an unjust pay practice “breaks down [workers’] nerves, their mental buoyancy, and their character.”[12] 

This understanding of the denigrating effects of unjust compensation policies highlights an implicit feature in Ryan’s discussion of a decent livelihood.   Rauschenbusch recognized the disastrous consequences unjust compensation had on laborer’s health, describing the deaths that slum conditions caused as “preventable decimation of the people” and “social murder.”[13] He expressed a clear concern for the health of the working poor, as demonstrated by his prayer “For Doctors and Nurses” and the “Tuberculosis Day Prayer”[14] and relentlessly promoted other health provisions for laborers.  While Ryan primarily focused on grounding his more generalized living wage doctrine in theology rather than delving into specifics, his conception of just pay clearly incorporated a worker’s health as a key tenet. For both Ryan and Rauschenbusch, then, a truly just remuneration practice requires a wage that allows workers to live a healthy existence, or as Ryan states, a wage “sufficient to maintain the worker in normal health.”[15]

Central to these social justice pioneers’ conception of just pay practices is an appreciation for the worker’s physical condition.  Using this understanding of a causal relationship between wage and health as a springboard for ethical analysis, modern day theologians have more explicitly defined a living wage as salary pay that ensures adequate health care coverage for the laborer.  For instance, Professor Judith Brady interprets Ryan’s justice claim of personal worth within a contemporary American Christian context,  describing the justice standard for a living wage as “a kind of fairness as demonstrated by a desire for all of us to live freely and to have fairly equal opportunities to provide for the basic necessities for ourselves, specifically… affordable health care.”[16] Likewise, living wage activist Professor Christine Firer Hinze advocates a Christian conception of just pay practices that “explicitly extends wage to mean the whole remuneration given the worker. Benefits, insurance…may augment cash wages to form a sum total that may be deemed a living wage.”[17] Rightly understood, say these women, any wage that fails to secure adequate health care coverage for the laborer falls short of the Christian justice standard. 

Wal-Mart: Save Money, Live Better? Societal Good verses Individual Personhood

With these defining standards as a guide, an analysis of what precisely constitutes just remuneration and health care benefits for Wal-Mart workers should also recognize unique factors that characterize this corporate behemoth.  One such feature complicates a Christian discussion of just remuneration policies: Wal-Mart delivers substantial overall social benefits in the form of low prices. The Bureau of Economic Research now credits Wal-Mart with driving down the inflation rate by upwards of fifteen percent, meaning that all Americans substantially profit from its low pricing commitment.[18]  In particular, some of the main beneficiaries of Wal-Mart’s low prices are the poor who, without Wal-Mart, would not be able to afford many of the products it stocks.  Global Insights, an international research firm, claims that Wal-Mart’s expansion has caused a 9.1 percent decrease in food-at-home prices and has lowered the price of all other goods by approximately 3.1 percent.[19]  Ostensibly, then, Wal-Mart’s growth has caused an increase in the standard of living for many people.  President Barack Obama’s chief economic advisor, Jason Furman, estimated that Wal-Mart’s low prices saves the average household approximately $2,329 annually, describing Wal-Mart as “a progressive success story.”[20]  Given the church’s continued concern for the poor and the less powerful, the benefits that Wal-Mart brings in the form of material distribution presumably counts for something.[21]

The social good Wal-Mart achieves on behalf of the poor and its redistribution of gains in the form of lower prices, the question remains: how does a Christian-based ethic sort through this myriad of competing interests given contemporary living wage standards?  Should the collective societal good Wal-Mart achieves trump any discussion of adequate compensation for its employees? In dealing with such troubling questions, one should remember individual dignity.  Here, John Ryan’s observation that a “singular emphasis upon social welfare does not account for individuals as the ends in themselves,” provides a helpful benchmark.[22]  Distinguishing between individual and social welfare safeguards the dignity of the individual and helps to protect against the degeneration of ethical analysis into a form of crass utilitarianism.   Similarly, Rauschenbusch, with his commitment to the kingdom of God, believes that “the social nature of the kingdom requires that justice aim to form social institutions that encourage individual development.”[23]  A Christian examination of Wal-Mart’s wage practices may therefore insist upon the individual dignity of each employee rather than the broad maximization social benefits. Without such respect for the particular person, there is little to prevent a downward slide into the oppression of employees. 

The Economics of It All

This appreciation for the individual justifies a restricted investigation into whether Wal-Mart’s wage rate sufficiently allows for a worker’s well-being in society.  The salary of CEO Doug McMillon can greatly exceed that of a given employee, so long as the standard wage for workers sufficiently respects their dignity as created beings endowed with the God-given right to a decent living and benefits.  Wal-Mart executives proudly proclaim that their average full-time hourly wage comes in at approximately $11.24, reaching almost $12 in cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco.[24]

Nevertheless, the company refuses to disclose the average employees’ starting salary.  Based on payroll data from 2001, analysts believe that the beginning salary figure probably ranges around $7 per hour.[25]  Although Wal-Mart raised its starting pay by six percent in 2006, this minor hike applied to only one-third of its retail locations and Wal-Mart introduced salary caps on associate positions.[26] Furthermore, only approximately sixty percent of Wal-Mart workers qualify as full-time employees, meaning that about fifty percent of all associates do not meet the criteria for these higher pay rates.[27]  Finally, the company’s ambiguous definition of full-time, which ranges from thirty-four to forty hours per week, means that an employee who qualifies for full-time pay may still only earn a mere $17,680 a year.[28]

These salary figures have direct bearing on a Wal-Mart employees’ ability to purchase health care. In an embarrassing memo that was leaked to the press in 2005, the Executive Vice President  of Wal-Mart’s People Division admitted that, “On average, Associates spend 8 percent of their income on healthcare (premiums plus deductibles plus out-of-pocket expenses) for themselves and their families, nearly twice the national average.”[29]  Even after Wal-Mart’s massive 2008 campaign to revamp its program in response to its vocal critics, only fifty percent of Wal-Mart workers had signed up for its plan. In addition, part-time workers cannot register for health care until after they have completed a year of service, making many of Wal-Mart’s employees ineligible.[30] The 2006 introduction of salary caps was in part an attempt to eliminate workers who traditionally consume the largest amount of Wal-Mart’s heath care benefits: loyal, middle aged employees, usually women.[31]

Judging these figures against the Christian conception of a living wage, the salary Wal-Mart pays its workers falls short of the mark. Clearly, the current wage does not honor Wal-Mart workers’ personal development and it stifles their participation as individuals in society.  In this investigation, an online tool supported by Pennsylvania State University’s Living Wage Project provides a helpful guide by listing economic living wage estimates for thousands of communities across the country. These living wage figures take into account health insurance expenses, as projected by the Consumer Expenditure Survey.  According to this Living Wage Calculator, the per-hour salary necessary to meet the minimal life necessities in Charlotte, North Carolina is approximately $8.73 per hour.  The current wage of many Wal-Mart employees falls well below this benchmark.  From a more macroeconomic vantage point, economists estimate that the aggregate annual income of a full-time Wal-Mart employee is approximately $17,600 a year. [32]  Moreover, the annual income of an individual compensated by a living wage comes in at $18,152.40,[33] well above Wal-Mart’s average figure.  Even more disturbing, using very conservative estimates as approximations, a newly hired Wal-Mart employee can expect to earn approximately $14,560 annually.[34]  Not only does this figure fall far below the recommended living wage value, but it also only marginally clears the abject poverty standard for an individual of $11,201.[35] 

A seminal study recently conducted at the University of California at Berkeley supports the conclusion that in the interest of justice, Christians concerned with the dignity of workers should protest and criticize Wal-Mart’s current wage rate. The study, “A Downward Push: The Impact of Wal-Mart Stores on Retail Wages and Benefits,” concludes that after controlling for other economic growth factors, Wal-Mart’s entrance into a community causes lower paying jobs to replace higher paying positions and simultaneously drives the aggregate wage rate down in rival industries.  This study also found that during the 1990s, a time during which Wal-Mart’s stores grew by upwards of forty percent, average wages for workers fell by ten percent and health care coverage by five percent.[36]  With Wal-Mart’s decisions affecting the overall salary and health care coverage for workers in the service sector, a concern for Wal-Mart’s wages translates into a concern for social justice in general.

Theology Meets Policy: Recommendations for Wal-Mart

Thus far, a Christian analysis of Wal-Mart’s wage rate has demonstrated that its current value does not satisfactorily meet the prerequisites that characterize a “decent livelihood.”  In response to this conclusion, the next logical question becomes what precise living wage policy would satisfactorily meet the needs of Wal-Mart workers.  In addressing this first question, the study “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart,” conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, provides helpful information as to the practical possibility of implementing a living wage policy.  Their findings confirm that not only is the Christian conception of a just wage spiritually desirable; it is economically feasible as well.  According to their results, if Wal-Mart unilaterally increased all employees’ pay to ten dollars per hour (including part-time associates), “nearly half of the pay increase would go to workers in families with total incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level…these poor and low income workers could expect to earn an additional $1,020 to $4,640 a year.”[37]  Even if Wal-Mart passed on this increase in wages entirely to the consumer in the form of price markups, an unlikely occurrence, this would amount to a price increase of a mere $1.47 per shopping trip.[38]  Not only do these findings debunk Wal-Mart’s defensive argument that the implementation of a wage increase for all associates would hurt the welfare of society, they also point the way towards realistic reform and confirm the feasibility of my recommendations on the basis of Christian social justice convictions.

Furthermore, if Wal-Mart raised all associates’ wages to ten dollars per hour, this would make health care coverage for all employees a feasible option.  According to the 2008 Consumer Expenditure Report, a report sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spent approximately $1,190.40 on health insurance in 2008.[39]  If any given Wal-Mart worker followed this national expenditure pattern, they could expect to spend approximately 5.7 percent of their annual income on health insurance.[40]  This figure reflects the national average,[41] and represents a definite improvement over the nearly eight percent that the average associate currently spends.[42] 

Even if such a wage increase would make health care affordable for employees, the next issue of concern is whether Wal-Mart’s health care coverage itself adequately meets a Christian justice standard.  A worker may be able to meet the expense demands of one of Wal-Mart’s health care options, yet this is of little consequence if the plan does not adequately meet the employee’s health needs. Failure to consider whether a worker has health insurance that provides adequate coverage turns living wage analysis into mere minimum wage legislation.  Even though Wal-Mart offers a variety of different plans, each follows the same basic philosophy that characterizes Wal-Mart’s business model: always, always low costs.  Wal-Mart utilizes Bush’s health-care model that combines Health Security Accounts (HSAs) with high deductibles.  In this arrangement, companies contribute several hundred dollars to an HSA that pays for two to three doctor visits per year. The routine procedures that a doctor might order, however, are not covered by this fund.  In return for not funding routine procedures, companies can instead offer lower premiums and cover high insurance deductibles.[43]  Wal-Mart has done just that, covering few everyday medical expenditures, yet paying for catastrophic health care expenses that could bankrupt employees. For instance, Wal-Mart pays 100 percent of medical charges above $1,750 a year and remains dedicated to a no lifetime cap on such payments.  Even though this crisis care treatment may seem amazing given the low monthly payments recipients pay, Professor Nelson Lichtenstein is quick to point out a sinister side of this arrangement.  He highlights the fact that the high deductibles such plans inflict on employees place an expense burden on the “medical issues that families are sure to face on an annual basis: well-baby care, vaccinations, immunizations, adult checkups, ear infections, dental and eye care, muscle strains, and the like.”[44] 

Theologians and Christian thinkers alike have discussed the implications of both crisis and preventative care, specifically in relation to contemporary political debates. Stephen E. Lammers and Allen Verhey, coeditors of On Moral Medicine surmise that if “we increased funding for all critical care; then we would have less for the care of retarded and handicapped people, less for preventative medicine.”[45] Likewise, a feature article in The Christian Century notes that, “When we attend too little to primary, preventive and mental health care, the cost of acute care increases: we mistarget funds, and we fail to empower people to take responsibility for their own health.”[46]  On the other hand, faith convictions also justify critical care intervention.  Protestant writer Gene Outka believes distributive justice mandates that, given the random and often unmerited nature of tragic illnesses, “critical health care emergencies [have] an immediacy and urgency that distinguished them from other sorts of deprivation.”[47] The National Council of Churches shares this appreciation for need-based treatment, insisting that, “unless the legislation gives adequate attention to the most poor and sick, health care reform legislation will not be worthy of the name.”[48]  Even this wide-ranging and unsystematic survey demonstrates theological justification for both preventative and crisis care intervention. This realization highlights the fact that Christians do not necessarily conceive of critical and preventative care as competing choices.  While particular faith-based groups may stress one avenue over the other, virtually no Christian conception of justice willingly advocates one of these two treatment paths at the expense of totally abandoning the other method of care. 

In light of this appreciation for both preventative and crisis care treatment, an evaluation of Wal-Mart’s current health insurance philosophy exposes the ethical problems associated with its current plan.  Wal-Mart fails to meet a Christian justice standard in that the corporation essentially drops preventative care treatment out of the health care equation.  Unlike Christian thinkers, Wal-Mart’s policy makes an either-or choice between preventative and crisis care. Wal-Mart contends that preventative care is too expensive and that the associated health care costs could jeopardize the financial stability of the company.  The chief architect of Wal-Mart’s health care policy has stressed that, “if Wal-Mart goes out of business because of health care, we won’t have accomplished anything in terms of helping people.”[49]  Despite this cry, since Wal-Mart adopted its health care plan the company has saved between 400 and 700 million dollars per year.[50]  Ultimately, a living wage movement can reasonably ascertain that this current system fails to meet a Christian justice standard, yet what precise measures should be adopted requires further economic analysis.

Additionally, more questions remain in relation to living wage pay at Wal-Mart in that thus far, an analysis of Wal-Mart’s remuneration policies has considered the situation of employees as self-supporting individuals.  Despite this simplifying assumption, many laborers work to support not only themselves, but to procure a decent life for family dependents as well.  From early constructions of living wage principles to its modern-day formations, all have called for a salary figure that would allow a single wage earner to support his/her family.  Ryan believed that persons “cannot live well-balanced lives, cannot attain a reasonable degree of self-development outside the married state.”[51] Likewise, Professor Christine Firer Hinze’s also advocates for a family living wage, as does the National Council of Churches, with The Social Creed for the 21st Century calling for “a family-sustaining living wage…with time and benefits to enable full family life.”

Adopting this understanding of a family living wage would nearly double the figure Wal-Mart would have to pay an employee. For example, in the Charlotte area, a living wage that would support a family consisting of two adults and two children equates to $26.96 per hour.  If a Christian ethical definition of just compensation stipulates that only by paying a familial living wage does Wal-Mart honor employees’ individual integrity, then this would mean that in areas such as Washington D.C. any given Wal-Mart employee would earn upwards of $30.76 per hour.[52] Should Wal-Mart associates be compensated according to these benchmark figures?

In this seeming ethical quagmire, Professor Dennis McCann offers some elucidating advice.  In response to whether Wal-Mart should pay employees a family living wage, McCann concludes that the corporation should.  Yet here he draws an important distinction between should and could.  He finds a family living wage standard “virtually impossible to meet given the way the US economy is currently structured.”  He believes that living wage advocates use this family benchmark as, “a bargaining chip in order to raise consciousness about the problem and to move the minimum wage higher and closer to that target, a target they know is most likely never to be reached.”[53]  It is here, in between should and could, that Christians must look for a discernable standard for what family wage rate they should push for. Perhaps the proper living wage exists between ‘the should’ of a family living wage and ‘the could’ of a wage that supports an individual.  In accordance with this third option, a family living wage becomes sort of a moral target. 

The Cost of Low Prices

A Christian devotion to the spiritual demands of the Gospel and the practical consequences of human existence makes reaching a straightforward, unambiguous answer to the question of what should constitute a just Wal-Mart wage and health care plan difficult.  Yet, believers can reasonably ascertain that the current rate does not adequately meet a Christian standard.   The intractable problem of limited financial and medical resources and unlimited claims on such resources makes explaining away all tensions virtually impossible. Dr. Andrew Lustig, in an article detailing conflicting health care policy choices, concludes that, “the level at which we draw the connection between faith and policy is likely to be in terms of discernment, motivation, and empowerment, rather than of specific prescriptions.  Living wage advocates may never formulate a cohesive recommendation detailing precisely what would constitute a just remuneration practice at Wal-Mart.  Such a realization, however, does not mean that a commitment to this goal should be abandoned. Even Rauschenbusch, the eternal optimist, recognized that the Kingdom is always coming and also understood the sacrifice and frustration that necessarily characterize incremental change.  Yet, despite slow progress, he insisted that humanity could and would take real steps towards true justice.


[1] Robert D. McFadden and Angela Macropoulos, “A Crowd Seeking Holiday Deals, and a Rush for the Door That Turned Fatal,” New York Times, Nov. 29, 2008: A16, [accessed September 19, 2009]

[2] Karen Pike, “Americans Split Over Wal-Mart,” MSNBC Business, Dec. 1 , 2005, [accessed September 18, 2009].

[3]Tom Van Riper, “Why Wal-Mart May Just Be Good For the U.S.” Forbes,  Jan. 17, 2008, [accessed September 11, 2009].

[4] Charles Fischman, The Wal-Mart Effect [New York: The Penguin Press, 2006] 5.

[5] Anthony Bianco, et al., "Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?” BusinessWeek, October 6, 2003, 100-110, [accessed October 17, 2009].

[6] “Fortune 500 2009: Top performers,” Fortune, May 4 2009, [accessed September 19, 2009].

[7] Jerry Useem, Julie Schlosser, and Helen Kim, “One Nation Under Wal-Mart,” Fortune,

March 3, 2003: 64-78, [accessed September 15, 2009].

[8] While the economic data does not unilaterally support this conclusion, many economists contend that Wal-Mart’s entrance into a community makes it impossible for small-town “Mom and Pop” stores to compete.  Garry Gereffi, professor at Duke University, reports that since Wal-Mart can undercut small retailer’s prices by anywhere between twenty and thirty percent, such stores stand little chance against this corporate giant. 

[9] John A. Ryan, Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and A Living Wage, ed. Harlan R.  Beckley [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996], 115.

[10] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, [New York: The Macmillian Company, 1907], 60.

[11] Walter Rauschenbusch, The Righteousness of the Kingdom, ed. Max Stackhouse [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1968], 115.

[12] Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 237.

[13] Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 240.

[14] Rauschenbusch understood medical illness as uniquely social phenomenon.  In his prayer “For Doctors and Nurses,” Rauschenbusch prays that they be “faithful in their service of the poor who need their help most sorely, and may the children of the workingman be as precious to them as the child of the rich.” Just as doctors and nurses had a unique duty to society, he understood illness itself as an indication of society’s failings.  In the “Tuberculosis Day Prayer,” he writes, “since we are all jointly guilty of the conditions which have bred their disease, may we stand by those who bear the burden of our common sin, and set the untied will of our community against this power that slays the young and strong in the bloom of their life.  May this death that creeps from man to man be a solemn reminder that we are all one family, bound together in joy and sorrow.” [Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the Social Awakening].

[15] Ryan, Economic Justice, 115.

[16] Judith Ann Brady, “Justice For the Poor In a Land of Plenty; A Place At the Table,” Religious Education 101.3 (2006), 347-367.
PQD&TS=1241402986&clientId=15042 [accessed September 20, 2009].

[17] Christine Firer Hinze, “Bridge Discourse on Wage Justice: Roman Catholic and Feminist Perspectives on the Family Living Wage,” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 23 (1991), 124.

[18] Bruce Bartlett, “Wal-Mart is good for America,” NCPA Idea House, November 22, 2004 [accessed September 18 2009].

[19]Jeremy J. Siegel, “In Praise of Wal-Mart,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance 61 (2007), 75-56 [accessed September 17, 2009].

[20]Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created A Brave New World of Business [New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009] 247.

[21] Wal-Mart has not shied away from capitalizing upon the social benefits it has delivered in the form of low prices, using this as a sort of bulwark against constant criticism.  Its decision to switch from its 19 year slogan of “Always, Always Low Prices,” to “Save Money: Live Better,” reflects this desire to widely publicize that low prices translate to a better standard of living. Its recent commercial entitled “Road Trip” features a picturesque family cruising in their minivan as they vacation cross-country.  Be they hiking in the mountains, frolicking at the beach, or arriving at the Mecca of all American family vacation destinations, Orlando, Florida, the commercial makes clear that Wal-Mart has made these magical moments possible.  The commercial ends with the statement that Wal-Mart saves the average family $2,500 per year, and then begs the question: what will you do with your savings? Such a campaign calls into question the motives behind Wal-Mart’s pricing scheme.

[22] Harlan Beckley, Passion for Justice: Retrieving the legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992], 125.

[23] Beckley, Passion for Justice, 44.

[24] “Corporate Facts: Wal-Mart by the numbers,” August  2009, Wal-Mart Stores, [accessed September 12, 2009].

[25] Ken Jacobs, “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart.” Social Policy 32.2 (2008), 9 [accessed September 17, 2009].

[27] Amy Joyce, “Critics Say Wal-Mart Grows Part-Timers to Cut Benefits,” Washington Post,  May 26, 2006, [accessed October 16 2009].

[28] This figure was calculated making the generous assumption that such an employee earns an average of 10 dollars per hour and works 34 hours each week for 52 straight weeks each year [Corporate Facts 2009]. 

[29] Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, 219.

[30] Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, 215-222.

[31] This covert form of discrimination typifies Wal-Mart’s behavior towards its female sales associates.  Wal-Mart currently faces the largest private-sector class action lawsuit in American history for routinely discriminating against women in payment and promotions decision [Moreton 49].  Despite its poor treatment of female employees in lower level positions, the CEO of was named one of the 50 most powerful women in business and the National Association of Female Executives honored Wal-Mart as one of the top companies for female executives [Useem].  This seemingly disparate treatment of women further illustrates the ambiguity of assessing Wal-Mart’s actions in light of Christian social justice standards.

[32] Anthony Bianco, The Bully of Bentonville: How the high cost of Wal-Mart’s everyday low prices is hurting America [New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2006], [accessed September18, 2009] 14.

[33]  This number was calculated using the recommended living wage value of $8.73 for a worker who works for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks in a year.  It should be noted that living wage estimates remain highly conservative, calculated to reflect a very minimal standard of living and minimal cost threshold.   The Living Wage Project admits that in some instances, these wages may reflect too low estimations of the local cost of living.

[34] Calculated using payroll data estimates of the starting salary of a Wal-Mart employee, earning approximately $7.00 per hour, working for 40 hours per week and for 52 weeks per year [Jacobs].

[35] The Census Bureau reports this as the poverty threshold for an individual under the age of 65 for the past year. [U.S. Census Bureau]

[36] Jacobs, “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart,” 7-8.

[37] Jacobs, “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart,” 9.

[38] Jacobs, “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart,” 9.

[39]  The average “consumer unit” spent $2,976 on health insurance. The consumer unit is defined as 2.5 persons, meaning that the average person spent $1,190.40 on health insurance in 2008 [Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008]

[40] A full-time Wal-Mart worker compensated at a rate of 10 dollars per hour could expect to earn approximately $20,800 in a given year, meaning that an annual outlay of $1,190.40 would equal approximately .057 of this total figure. In other words, approximately 5.7 percent.

[41] The average annual income per person in a consumer unit equaled approximately $25,425.20 in 2008.  This means that average health insurance costs per person equaled approximately .046 of this figure or alternatively, 5 percent.

[42] US Department of Labor, Consumer Expenditures—2008, Prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics[Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, October 6, 2009] [accessed October 22, 2009].

[43] Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, 221.

[44] Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, 218-219.

[45] Stephen E. Lammers and Allen Verhey, eds., On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics, 2nd Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998] 631.

[46] “The Ethical Foundations of Health Care Reform," The Christian Century, June 1, 1994, 572
PQD&TS=1256269153&clientId=15042 [accessed October 22, 2009].

[47] Andrew B. Lustig, “Reform and Rationing: Reflections on Health Care in Light of Catholic Social Teaching,” 37.

[48] The National Council of Churches, Health Care Reform, August 2009, [accessed October 22, 2009].

[49] Barbaro and Abelson, “A Health Plan for Wal-Mart: Less stinginess.”

[50] Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, 221.

[51] Ryan, Economic Justice, 121.

[52] Glasmeier, “Living wage calculator,”

[53] Dennis McCann, interview by author, October 29, 2009.

Thinking About Religion, Volume 9
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Posted 03/14/2011

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