Monday, July 5, 2010

Save Money, Live Better: The Case for Wal-Mart on the South Side of Chicago

Read it at Huffington Post

Posted: June 30, 2010 03:24 PM

Wal-Mart may be coming to Chicago, and soon.

Union opposition has kept Wal-Mart at bay for the last six years, but when the company agreed to pay entry-level workers 50 cents above the minimum wage, unions were suddenly all ears. Last week, the City Council zoning committee finally signed off on a Wal-Mart store on Chicago's South Side.

It helped that Wal-Mart has estimated it would add 12,000 jobs over the next five years in Chicago, where the unemployment rate is more than 10 percent. There are plenty of debates going on over whether Wal-Mart is really the answer to unemployment on the South Side. One persistent argument against the company is that Wal-Mart is bad news for the mom-and-pop stores, and that the many job gains for the city will be offset by the fall-out for the owners of small businesses.

I have a family friend down on the South Side named Brenda, who is unemployed and on disability benefits because of several medical maladies. Brenda lives in West Pullman, not far from where Wal-Mart proposes to set up shop.

Brenda was recently wearing a brand new white jumpsuit. When she was complimented on the suit, she proudly said that it was "designer" and that she had bought it for $268. The suit was clearly worth much less.

Convenience stores, as well as mom-and-pop stores down on the South Side are known for charging obscene rates for clothing and other products, reeling in customers by putting flashy signs that say "Designer" or "Exclusive" next to cheap clothing. It wouldn't hurt for Wal-Mart to undercut a few of the mom-and-pop prices, so that South Side customers have a better idea of the value of a jumpsuit or pair of jeans.

The other issue plaguing the South Side, particularly African American residents, is that it has the most "food deserts" in Chicago -- areas where residents have no grocery store. A 2006 report by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group showed that in a typical African American block, the nearest grocery store is about two-times further than the nearest fast food restaurant.

Food deserts on Chicago's South Side have shrunk some since 2006, and this has provided health benefits to the communities. A 2009 Gallagher progress report said that if a grocery store were added to 11500 S. Michigan on the South Side (just a block from where Brenda lives), 15.46 lives could be saved from diabetes, 58.39 from cancer, 111.81 from cardiovascular disease and 12.90 from liver disease.

While Wal-Mart has proposed to open stores of varying size, both its grocery store format and Supercenter format will be complete with produce, frozen food, fresh meats, etc. A grocery store of this magnitude, with both healthy and unhealthy options, could do wonders for the health of the South Side community.

Wal-Mart's slogan "Save money, live better" promises a lot. So does its entrance into Chicago. The city will soon see whether Wal-Mart can live up to that promise.

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