Imagine quaint, idyllic Fairfield town center emptied out and dotted with soaped-up store windows. A venerable ghost town is what I want you to picture. It is also partially what Wal-Mart wants to do all across this nation. The ubiquity McDonalds achieved in fast food, Wal-Mart wants to achieve in retailing.

Wal-Mart seems like a college student’s best friend. It provides low prices on thousands of items in quantities you often cannot get at other stores. Wal-Mart also is unique in that you can buy a DVD, a pair of pants, and groceries all under the same roof.

The reality though, is that Wal-Mart finances itself and its low prices by scrimping wherever it can, including possibly contracting with companies who hire illegal aliens to clean its super centers.

Wal-Mart employees have needed to file for food stamps in the past because the employer simply does not pay a living wage to many of its workers. Wal-Marts’ workers, much like McDonalds, are non-unionized, given zero benefits, and treated harshly if they even think about organizing a union.

In Salina, Calif. a cashier starts at $6.25 an hour. Now, over time that wage rises, but so does the drain on a communities resources. There is no way a single-earner family can support itself at this level. This inevitably leads to greater dependence on community programs such as subsidized healthcare, food stamps, and public housing.

All the while, Wal-Mart eats the competition in town. The local grocery store is gone. The local bookstore is abandoned. Main Street becomes another drag leading to Wal-Mart, McDonalds, or Home Depot. A sense of independence is lost and very little is gained for the community.

If you think I am full of hot air just read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. There is a reason why virtually every student here has been assigned to read it in one class or another. There are real problems with an economy led by companies like Wal-Mart who treat workers as merely disposable cogs in their gigantic wheel.

Local businesses are what make a community feel like a home. I don’t pine for the Linens-and-Things in Fairfield when I am home in Pennsylvania; I do however, long for the home fries of the Athena Diner. The places that spark warm memories are local businesses where a worker is far more likely to get a fair shake.

There is a simple trade-off; either we support our community and pay a little more, or we save some money and lose any sense of a local identity. As a community, we cannot afford to support the burden of carrying low-wage earners when Wal-Mart is raking in $56.7 billion dollars in one fiscal quarter (First Quarter, 2003). People need health insurance and peace of mind. Wal-Mart refuses to give it to them.

For this reason and for fear of losing our identity, we cannot patronize Wal-Mart. If a worker is being treated unfairly at a local business we can boycott that business and force a change. Wal-Mart will respond to criticism by either ignoring it, or simply closing up shop and popping up a town over. The question is do we really want to build a nation that looks and feels the same everywhere we go? Are those pennies you save really worth their hidden cost?

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