Are Walmart and McDonald's Welfare Queens?

Barry Ritholtz, the man behind the Big Picture trading blog, has a column on Bloomberg View where he chastises Walmart and McDonald's for their large number of workers on welfare.  It's titled, How McDonald's and Wal-Mart Became Welfare Queens. He gets right to the point.

"According to one study, American fast food workers receive more than $7 billion dollars in public assistance. As it turns out, McDonald's has a “McResource” line that helps employees and their families enroll in various state and local assistance programs. It exploded into the public when a recording of the McResource line advocated that full-time employees sign up for food stamps and welfare.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private sector employer, is also the biggest consumer of taxpayer supported aid. According to Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, in many states, Wal-Mart employees are the largest groupof Medicaid recipients. They are also the single biggest group of food stamp recipients. Wal-mart’s "associates" are paid so little, according to Grayson, that they receive $1,000 on average in public assistance. These amount to massive taxpayer subsidies for private companies."

Ritholtz highlights three different possible solutions to the scenario that highlight the extent to which McDonalds and Walmart are abusing the system.

1. Raising the minimum wage.

2. Taxing companies for any public assistance their employees need.

3. Implement a guaranteed basic income for all adults like is currently proposed in Switzerland.  

(It seems appropriate to note that while basic income replacing welfare is an interesting theory, the proposal on Switzerland's ballot is absurdly high, as they are attempting to guarantee income equivalent to $67,000 a year for a married couple.)

The first solution references a long running debate among economists. If wages are forced significantly higher, it's likely that some current employees will be better off and a lot of potential future employees will be never be hired. Automated cashiers are basically a solved problem, and it's no coincidence that McDonalds are rolling them out in Europe where labor costs are higher before we see them here in the United States. Walmart also has cashiers that could be replaced if costs were higher.  It's a little ironic that people complain more about Walmart and McDonalds hiring cheap workers than they do about Amazon, which bought the robotic company Kiva Systems in order to reduce their need for human workers. If labor costs get high enough, Walmart might start to look at this type of automation more seriously.

The second solution jumps out as being immediately farcical. Before jumping to tax companies that employ anyone needing assistance we should stop and think about what that would mean for the hiring prospects of anyone that looks like they require this assistance. This is an example of the type of regulation that actively hurts those who it is designed to protect.

The third solution, which Ritholtz acknowledge as extreme, is interesting in theory. A guaranteed basic income, properly designed, is not very different from a negative income tax or our current Earned Income Tax Credit.  Negative income taxes theoretically work quite well, their main downside being that they lead to high marginal tax rates and reduce the ability of a society to be open to poor immigrants. The main problem with guaranteed income plans comes with the exceptions - the income is designed to replace welfare but there are always some groups that are seen as slightly more deserving and the process will inevitably allocate them a little more than others. This turns what was supposed to be a simple catch all program into one that merely magnifies the current problems of the welfare state. 

Thinking about whether or not Walmart and McDonald's are abusing the current system is an interesting question. But when we look at proposals to fix the problems it becomes apparent that the alternative to paying a lot of workers a bit of money could lead to these companies investing more in capital and paying fewer workers. 

Without employment opportunities at Walmart and McDonald's and other similar work places, many of these workers would have no jobs at all. The government would then have to pay out even more benefits to support people with no other incomes. It's not like they are perfect corporate citizens, McDonald's and Walmart have lobbied federal, state and local government for various rules that help them and hurt their competitors while they take advantage of every tax break they can. 

It's reasonable to think that many of the tax loopholes used by these companies should be closed and the various laws their lobbyists helped tweak before passage should be repealed. But the fact that McDonald's and Walmart employ low skill labor and pay them at the levels dictated by supply and demand is not something that should be held against them.