Wal-Mart in East New York: Desperation Exploitation

“With my Walmart job I have been able to get off of welfare and buy my home.”-Walmart Radio Ad

This morning while listening to the radio I heard the above quote in a commercial placed by Walmart…  

Editor’s Note: what follows is a guest post from Onleilove Alston of New York’s Poverty Initiative.  This is cross-posted at Union in Dialogue by way of New York Communities for Change.

This morning while listening to the radio I heard the above quote in a commercial placed by Walmart. I have been paying close attention to the proposed East New York Walmart, because I was born and raised in this community. I do not think this ad was placed haphazardly, because corporations spend millions on marketing, and psychology is a VERY important aspect of advertising. To place this commercial on New York City’s first and only African-American-owned radio station shows that Walmart knows who it needs to reach to come to East New York, and this commercial hit a couple of targets. East New York is one of the twelve communities in New York City that sends the most people to prison; the community has very high poverty and violence rates. Walmart is very familiar with these statistics and the desperation that residents face, and it is exploiting this desperation.

I saw similar desperation exploitation this summer while organizing for United Workers during a Baltimore City Council hearing for that city’s proposed Walmart. While we were having a pre-hearing protest, busses came packed with Walmart “supporters.” Veronica Dorsey, a United Workers leader and Poverty Scholar, engaged the “protestors” in conversation and found out that they were paid by Walmart to protest. Many of the protestors were poor and needed jobs, but when Veronica explained that they needed not just any job but a job with human rights, she struck a chord with them. Many supporters of a Walmart in East New York (including community residents) are focused on the potential for jobs – and rightly so – but what we need in East NY are jobs with justice that don’t violate our human rights any more than they already have been by systematic oppression, governmental neglect and violence.

In spite of the commercial’s success story, the facts are many Walmart employees actually need human services such as Food Stamps and Medicaid, which means the government is subsidizing this corporation. If Walmart employees in cities with lower costs of living are struggling, how much more will East New York residents struggle with our city’s high cost of living? If our City Council passed the proposed Living Wage Bill then maybe a Walmart would be a beneficial addition to East New York, but until that happens the addition will just be another blow to a community already beaten down by systematic historic oppression.

As I write this, I am conflicted because I know that many residents in East New York need jobs. I am not typing away as someone who just hates Walmart because it’s cool to do so in my progressive circles. I have people close to me who live in East New York and need work. Remembering my two-hour work commute from East New York to the North Bronx, I know how desperately my community needs jobs. The reason I oppose the Walmart in East NY is because I don’t want the wounds of my community to be bandaged but healed. What East New York residents need are: jobs that pay a living wage, educational opportunities for our children and safety for our streets. What Walmart wants to do in East NY is not an isolated incident but is connected to a wider issue of poverty faced by abandoned communities all over this country. Walking distance from where I grew up are factories that are underused or empty because of deindustrialization. Despite its location in a global city, East NY faces a desperation similar to the small rust belt towns across America that have accepted Walmart hoping for economic renewal. This issue further solidifies my desire to see the poor of rural, urban and suburban communities unite to build a movement led by the poor to end poverty. Though many activists and politicians view rural and urban poverty as different issues, corporations like Walmart show us that the struggles we face are not so different after all.


Onleilove Alston is in her fourth year of the Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work program at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University School of Social Work. As a member of the Poverty Initiative she is co-developing the Mary Magdala Welfare Queen Project. Onleilove is a contributing writer for Sojourners Magazine and Blogging Specialist at Ecumenical Women at the United Nations. She is also a member of NY Faith & Justice and The Beatitudes Society. A native of East New York Onleilove plans to return to do faith based advocacy and organizing.

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