A Senator Asks A Panel Of Experts To Defend Walmart. It Gets Awkward.

Hey you guys! Guys! OK, I have a new idea. Kind of radical, but just hear me out: What if we don’t pay Walmart’s employees ... but Walmart pays them instead?

Well, what do you think? Still not sure? Listen to the smart man giving his testimony at 4:50.

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Bernie Sanders:: Thank you, madam vice-chair. One of the interesting aspects of discussions about the economy and income inequality inside the Beltway, as opposed to back home in the real world, is the very different tone that we hear.

The idea that anybody could suggests that we are not seeing massive increases in income and wealth inequality is beyond my comprehension. If you go outside of the Beltway, there is no debate about that.

The idea that anyone could suggest that today the economy for the middle class is anywhere near where it used to be is beyond comprehension, I think, to the vast majority of the American people.

The reality that we are seeing today is that middle class in this country is disappearing, median family income is going down. We have more people living in poverty today than any time in history of the United States of America.

As Secretary Reich pointed out, between 2009 and 2012 95% of all new income generated in this country went to the top 1%. In terms of wealth, the situation is even worse. Maybe some of the panelist might want to defend the situation where the top 1% in America owns 38% of the wealth in this country and the bottom 60% owns 2.3% of the wealth.

Does anybody on that panel, I'm going to ask that question in a moment, think that makes moral sense or economic sense? Does anybody think it makes moral or economic sense that one family, the Walton family, owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of the American people?

Now, in terms of government action, we have heard that the stimulus package presumably had no impact. Well, that wasn’t true in my state nor was it true in America.

By investing in our economy, in our kids, and in infrastructure, according to the CBO, the Recovery Act, the Stimulus Bill, created or sustained up to 3.6 million jobs, a 4.2% boost for GDP in the first quarter of 2010, and a reduction in the unemployment rate of up to 2.1% in the last quarter of 2010. At a time we needed the jobs the most.

Last point that I want to make and I want to ask a question on this one, the Walton family is the wealthiest family in America, does anyone on the panel think that they need significant welfare help? Yet, it turns out that they are the largest recipient of welfare in America.

Because when you pay workers starvation wages, which is what Walmart does, how do the workers at Walmart or McDonald's or Burger King survive? Well, they get Medicaid for their kids and for themselves, they get food stamps, and they live in government sponsored affordable housing.

I'll start off with my question to Dr. Winship and we'll go down the line. Do you think the Walton family, worth $100 billion, is in need of welfare from the middle class of this country? Or do you think maybe we should raise the minimum wage so that those workers can earn a living wage and not have to get Medicaid or food stamps? Dr. Winship.

Scott Winship:: Thank you, senator. Let me start with your earlier question about defending the wealth distribution that have.

Bernie Sanders:: Actually, my question was on the Walton family.

Scott Winship:: OK.

Bernie Sanders:: Do you think they need welfare?

Scott Winship:: I would not use the word welfare, I think it’s stigmatizing.

Bernie Sanders:: Do you think their workers, a large number, should have to get Medicaid or food stamps?

Scott Winship:: What I think is that Walmart has the low prices which–

Bernie Sanders:: Please answer my question.

Scott Winship:: I'm sorry. Repeat the question.

Bernie Sanders:: The question is: do you think the wealthiest family in this country, the Walton family, should have a large number of employees who depend upon government help, Medicaid, food stamps, and affordable housing in order to get by? Or should they pay their workers a living wage? And should we raise the minimum wage to make sure that they do that?

Scott Winship:: I think that we should not raise the wage above levels that’s going to cause Walmart to not hire their workers. The only way that they are able to have the prices which benefit low income people more than people up on the income distribution is by paying wages that are not as high as you or I might like.

Bernie Sanders:: I'm hearing your question to be that the middle class of this country, through increased taxes, should be subsidizing the wealthiest family in this country who are paying inadequate wages. Secretary Reich, what's your take on that?

Robert Reich:: Senator, I do not think that taxpayers in this country ought to be subsidizing the wealthiest family in this country or any company at any corporation that is paying its workers so little that those workers, in order to have a decent living, have got to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, and so on. That is corporate welfare of the worst kind.

But more broadly, let me simply say that Walmart is the largest employer in the United States. It is paying its workers, if you include its part-time workers, on average $8.80 an hour. Now, compare that to 1955 when the largest employer in the United States was General Motors and it was paying its workers in today's dollars $37 an hour.

Bernie Sanders:: That’s a huge point. I don’t have much time. Dr. Kearny and Dr. Mathur if they could answer the question, should the taxpayers of this country be subsidizing-

Chairperson:: Thirty seconds each.

Bernie Sanders:: Well, 30 seconds is fine.

Aparna Mathur:: I don’t think we should be subsidizing Walmart. But I think workers have a choice about where they want to work. If they are choosing to work at Walmart that is their choice and we should not decide for them whether it's good choice. The program subsidizes workers. These are poverty programs, benefits go directly to workers. I do think that they are creating jobs, people are able to work, and have enough benefits to survive. I think it's a good thing.

Bernie Sanders:: Dr. Kearny.

Melissa Kearny:: When Walmart came to Washington, D.C. the number of job applicants per job, there were more than dozens of people willing to take each job. I think Walmart is a brilliant innovation and I have no beef with the Walton family. It would be great if people could move up the wage distribution faster at Walmart and aspire to management positions and better positions for themselves and their children.

Chairperson:: OK, thank you. Next, Mr. Campbell.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Did you like seeing Sen. Bernie Sanders in action? Me too. He's also one of the few people who's earned the right to use Beyonce's private word, "fierce."

Feb 19, 2014

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