Despite trivializing comments based on Walmart’s report of worker absenteeism, the Black Friday protests have shifted the debate from the safety net as a “hammock” to the plight of the working poor. (More)

Walmart reported that fewer than 50 employees missed work yesterday to protest low wages and harsh working conditions, and that absenteeism nationwide was no higher than a typical workday. Conservative pundits like the Daily Beast‘s Megan McArdle leaped to dismiss the protests as a “fizzle,” and right-wing blogs and other media quickly spread that meme.

If the only metric were the number of employees who told Walmart they were missing work to protest, that meme might have substance. But consider this change. Just seven months ago, soon-to-be GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said this:

But we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.

Republicans love the myth of able-bodied people “sitting on a couch waiting for their next government check,” then spending their food stamps at strip clubs. Their ethos of ‘individual responsibility’ is a lot easier to sell when set in contrast to “lazy people” who want “free stuff.”

It’s harder to sell gutting the social safety net when the focus is hard-working Americans whose jobs pay poverty-level wages. A 2005 U.C. Berkeley Labor Center study estimated that Walmart employees in California alone received an estimated $86 million in government assistance through programs like Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and subsidized housing and school lunches. If other major California retailers offered the same wages and benefits as Walmart, the study found, their employees would need $410 million a year in assistance. Thom Hartmann reported that, nationwide, Walmart employees receive $2.66 billion in government assistance each year.

Those hardworking Americans aren’t sitting on couches or swinging in hammocks. They’re stocking shelves and running checkout registers. They’re mowing lawns, mopping floors, changing hotel sheets, caring for children and seniors, or selling fast food. They are the working poor, almost one in three American families. Depending on how you count them, the number is higher still. A report by the Assets & Opportunity Network found that 43% of American families lack sufficient assets to survive at the poverty level for three months without a paycheck. They’re working … and they’re “one crisis from the bread line.”

We can have a worthwhile debate over whether the best solution is a nationwide living wage law, or sustaining and strengthening the social safety net, or some combination of the two. Each has benefits and drawbacks. A higher minimum wage would raise prices somewhat, offsetting some of the wage increase, but would lift more families off government assistance programs. A more robust social safety net would help the working poor meet their needs without raising prices, but allows the ‘dependency’ meme to live on.

We couldn’t have that worthwhile debate when discussions of poverty were about lazy people sitting on couches waiting for government checks to spend in strip clubs. As long as Republicans could keep the focus on that myth, they could sell gutting both the minimum wage and the social safety net.

The Black Friday and continuing protests by Walmart employees and other low-income workers blow up that Republican myth. Such protests put real human faces on the issue of poverty in America. They’re faces most of us see weekly if not daily, at retail stores, fast food restaurant, and other such businesses. They greet us as we walk in and say “Have a nice day!” as we leave. If we routinely shop at the same businesses, as most of us do, we may know some of them by name and even chat about our lives while we swipe our ATM cards and wait for our shopping bags.

Republicans say they want “free stuff,” but when we recognize their human faces … we know better. They work for a living, but barely earn enough to live.

We can and should debate how best to help them. I’m not certain what the best solution is, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t to let their families go hungry, or be unable to see doctors, or live in cars or tents in the woods – and still show up for work every day and say “Hi, welcome to Walmart!” – while we sneeringly call them “parasites.”

Republicans struggling to figure out why they lost this … might start there.


Happy Saturday!