Several weeks ago the federal government negotiated an $18.7 billion deal with BP to satisfy all state and federal claims against the oil company induced by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The penalties were mitigated by allowing the company to make payments over the next 18 years. The settlement includes the largest pollution fine in U.S. history, $5.5 billion.
That brings the final tally for BP’s obligations in the disaster to $53.8, more than all the profits generated by the company since 2012. That amount exceeds the annual GDP of 133 countries and dependent territories, according to United Nations figures for 2013. Last week’s settlement would have put many countries into bankruptcy. BP not only has survived these staggering payouts, but ranks 7th among companies listed by annual revenue ($359 billion) and continues to make payroll for its nearly 84,000 employees.
BP is one of 64 companies with consolidated revenue over $100 billion. Heading that list is the retail megagiant, Wal-Mart, which yields $486 billion in revenue annually and $16.3 billion in profits. Wal-Mart stores employ 2.2 million people worldwide, 1.3 million in the U.S.
Brad (not his real name) began working for Wal-Mart as a stocker. He is a high school graduate. He is married and has two children. His wife has serious health issues preventing her from working.
A conscientious worker, Brad continued to get pay raises, but was not eligible to receive promotions for jobs that required skills and qualities that Brad would never possess. Eventually he reached the top of the pay ladder. Suddenly one day, Brad was terminated. He could easily be replaced by a worker at the bottom of the pay scale.
Brad found another job as a stocker for a local grocery store. He began as a full-time employee, but the store soon began to reduce his hours until he reached part-time status. Federal law requires businesses employing more than 50 employees to provide health care benefits to all its employees. Many small businesses, like the grocery store, find ways around this ruling – at the expense of its employees.
Brad and his family fall into a special needs category. Their medial expenses exceed what they can pay, so they often forego medical attention, exacerbating their problems. The Brads in our country number in the hundreds of thousands, placing enormous demands on social service networks.
So where will Brad and his faction find help? Government subsidized social programs provide one option. Conservatives criticize these programs, however, arguing that capitalism, integrated with democracy, provide sufficient opportunities for every person. It rewards desirable character qualities, like diligence, industry, and initiative. These qualities very often go unrewarded, however, stifled by the economic strategies of business owners, leaving many people at the mercy of government programs.
Private charities offer a second source of assistance. These charities are funded through donations and grants. Grants some through foundations, which are funded by individuals. This system forces most social service agencies to work hard to subsidize their services and to compete for the generosity of donors. In spite of the compassionate outpouring of many thousands of these agencies, the under-resourced class has experienced virtually no attrition.
Some conservatives contend that families should create the safety net for those who fall into financial hardship. This is well and good, except that more often than not, the lack of resources extends to several generations. Poverty tends to breed poverty. One of the contributing factors to Brad’s financial deprivation was his willingness to help with his brother-in-law’s children when he died tragically. Although the family would have qualified for social services, Brad was unfamiliar with the system.
One source of help gets very little mention.
What if companies decided to quit treating their labor force like profit-loss line items and began treating them like human beings. What if employers viewed their employees like fellow sojourners on the path of life instead of negotiable overhead expenses that can be reduced with impunity.
It is mysterious why employees do not qualify for “neighbor” status, as in “love your neighbor as yourself.” It would seem that if this simple principle were applied by CEO’s, vice-presidents, and managers, another strand of the social safety net would be in place, a strand that is tragically absent in the corporate world today. Instead of providing a solution to poverty, the Wal-Marts of today are contributing to poverty by depriving employees of benefits and sometimes even a job for the sake of the company, as if the company had achieved “neighbor” status.
Undoubtedly, these issues shoulder greater complexities than this article addresses. This will hardly console the victims of callous business policies, like Brad. Government policies attract all the attention, but why does no one in the media want to hold corporate America accountable for elevating company over compassion and giving profit margin precedence over personnel misfortune? Why are corporations not viewed as some of the major culprits in contributing to poverty in this country? And where are the Christian employers whom Jesus says will be judged by the treatment of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40)?