Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s decision this week to veto a law requiring Wal-Mart to offer higher pay pitted support for a “living wage” against a desire to spur investment and job growth in the city. But for Pegues and thousands like him who cross the city line every day on their way to the Landover Wal-Mart, the battle was about something more basic: low prices.
Gray’s decision brought focus to the flipside 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 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, Wal-Mart shoppers typically earn lower-middle-class wages, live paycheck-to-paycheck and count jobs and rising food and energy costs as their greatest concerns. One-fifth of them have no credit and use only cash when they shop, according to company spokesman Steven Restivo.
In the District, the demand for Wal-Mart’s prices may be even higher. Nearly 24 percent of the city’s residentsreceive food stamps, more than anywhere in the nation. A recent study also ranked the District 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 license plates — on average, once a minute — told the tale on a recent evening at the Wal-Mart in Landover. Three miles from the District border, Michelle Smith, an unemployed mother of seven from Northeast, loaded a gallon of cooking oil and a 10-pound bag of sugar into her sister’s car — a few of $344 in groceries she needed to stretch for the rest of September.
Smith’s 14-year-old daughter, Nicole, sat sandwiched 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 Thursday, 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 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.