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Yes, Walmart works the system: Don't hate the player, hate the game

Aaron Task
Daily Ticker

In conjunction with the April 15 tax deadline, the organization Americans for Tax Fairness released its annual report on Walmart and the Walton Family.

Subtitled "How Taxpayers Subsidize Americas's Biggest Employer and Richest Family," the report concludes the company and its founding family received $7.8 billion in tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies in 2013, featuring:

  • $6.2 billion in public assistance to Walmart workers, namely Food Stamps and Medicaid
  • $1 billion in federal tax breaks, notably via the use of accelerated depreciation
  • $670 million directly to the Walton family due to lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends vs. wages

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Walmart (WMT) calls the report "inaccurate and misleading” and even some who support its overall focus take issue with the specific findings.

The $1 billion in federal tax breaks cited by Americans for Tax Fairness overstated the case by about $900 million, according to David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, author and professor at Syracuse University Law School. "They mis-measured it -- they took the current benefit instead of the time value benefit," he says. "It's a lot of nerdy stuff...but I think that $1 billion should be $100 million."

Another critique of the report is that the Walmart workers receiving federal benefits would be worse off without those jobs, potentially costing the U.S. government (and taxpayers) even more money. Furthermore, Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, recently wrote that the percentage of Walmart workers on Medicaid is in line with other major retailers. “The fact that Walmart employees top Medicaid rolls in a number of states is simply a reflection of Walmart’s enormous size, not the higher likelihood that its employees will be on Medicaid,” he writes.

On the issue of government assistance for Walmart workers, Johnston is in league with the Americans for Tax Fairness.

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People at Walmart can certainly say '[the payments are] not directly to us'. No it's not but it is subsidizing Walmart because it's their business strategy to hire people in a way that many people would need Food Stamps," he says.

Via email, a Walmart spokesman (naturally) responded with the company line: "Walmart provides associates with more opportunities for career growth and greater economic security for their families than other companies in America. Our full and part-time workers get bonuses for store performance, access to a 401K-retirement plan, education and health benefits."

But Johnston, whose books include The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use 'Plain English' to Rob You Blind and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense, is unmoved by this response.

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"Walmart's business model is predicated on paying low wages with skimpy benefits," he says. "There are retailers who pay wages where people who work full time do not end up on welfare."

Johnston is also critical of Walmart for its aggressive lobbying and says the company has received at least $1.5 billion in tax breaks to build stores and claims 90% of the company's distribution centers "were built with your tax dollars" and often "on land taken from other people via eminent domain."

Where you stand on these issues is a litmus test of sorts for your political views. The idea that the Walton Family receives $607 million in tax breaks because dividends receive "preferential" tax rates -- as the Americans For Tax Fairness claims -- is anathema for those who believe "the U.S. has a strange system of dividend taxation," as contributor Tim Worstall writes in Forbes.

In the end, Walmart is focused on "because it's so big"..."but this is a broadly distributed problem" of government policies that favor multinational corporations and the wealthiest Americans, according to Johnston, whose latest book is an anthology of essays entitled Divided: The Perils of our Growing Inequality.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.

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