Whenever I see a study that talks about ‘correlation’ being bandied about in the press as ‘showing linkage’, I immediately don my ‘correlation does NOT mean causation’ hat! And in a new study noted at LiveScience, that is at least as true as usual. The study shows there is a significant correlation between number of Wal-Mart stores in a county and the number of hate groups. And as the number of stores have grown, so have the number of hate groups.
Before I chime in, here is a bit of context about how things were done:
The researchers used data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors the activities of hate groups, on hate groups in each U.S. county in 2007. They used the number and location of Wal-Mart stores from 1998. Goetz said the lag time between the data sets provided time for the possible influence of a store to affect a community.
And here are some details from the study:
This one’s sure to boil some blood over at Walmart headquarters: A new study says there’s a significant correlation between the amount of Walmart stores in an area and the number of hate groups existing in that same area. As the big-box stores proliferate, so do the groups.
LiveScience.com cites the study by professors at Penn State University, New Mexico State University and Michigan State University, which says that the amount of Wal-Mart stores in a county was more statistically significant than other factors usually associated with hate group participation. For example, the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education.
“Wal-Mart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices,” said Stephan Goetz, a Penn State University professor who also serves as the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. “But there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects.”
An important puzzle piece in this research is that many local merchants, who are often members of community and civic groups, can be forced out of business while trying to compete with Walmart. Losing members of those groups might cause a drop in community togetherness.
When those leaders leave, the presence of ginormous, anonymous juggernauts of big-box retailers could play a role in fraying social bonds. People often act different when they feel like someone is paying attention — like when you decide not to shoplift at the local candy store because the owner is best friends with your mother.
The study only dealt with the correlation between Walmart and hate groups, but the researchers do note that if there’s a Walmart around, other box stores like Target and Home Depot likely are as well.
“We’re not trying to pick on Wal-Mart,” said one researcher. “In this study, Wal-Mart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer.”
A couple of things are significant:
- The researchers used statistical techniques to isolate known potential factors such as economics and education.
- While Wal-Mart was specifically studied, the trends that the researchers observed were more or less generic to so-called ‘big box’ retailers. This led them to think that rather than a specific Wal-Mart tie-in, the effect was more related to the breakdown of community based on the lost of local merchants.
An interesting project looks at the growth of Walmart through the years , and if nothing else pops out you from that, it is that regardless of nationwide growth it is easy to see the ‘HOME’ of Wal-Mart – and it isn’t exactly in a part of the country where hate groups are uncommon.
In fact, while I have no doubt that researchers put as many controls on the data set as possible, there are few other things that happened between 1998 and now that might have an impact on hate groups:
- 9/11 happened in between, and since then there has been a tacit acceptance of hate-crimes against Muslims in certain areas (Wal-Mart territory). I mean, these same people campaigning for enforced prayer in school, teaching backwards theocratic doctrine as fact, and so on are the same people threatening violence if peaceful Islamic citizens of our country want to worship on property they own – where there is no forced contact.
- In 1998 we were in an economic boom and were actually paying down the debt, cutting taxes, expanding services and so on. By 2007 we were in two wars, at least one of which was illegal and unjustified, our debt was out of control, wage disparity was being protected in law to the greatest extent in history, money influence in politics was being legalized by the new Supreme court. For most Americans, everything had gotten worse … much worse.
- In 1998 school shootings were a rarity, guns were being restricted using sensible laws, and self-defense laws required a reasonable attempt to avoid conflict. By 2007 school and workplace shootings were so common that the body count had to exceed a dozen to break outside the local news, the gun lobby had effectively polarized people against one another, and ‘stand your ground laws’ meant shoot-on-sight.
- Also, in more than one place in ‘Wal-Mart country’, in recent years neo-nazi and other demonstrable hate groups have been called ‘civil rights groups’. Also, as gains are made in equal rights based on race, religion, gender and sexual identity, there are those who see violence as the only means to ‘go back to the good old days’.
Bottom line, we live in a very different time than in 1998 – and the study stops even before Barack Obama became president, with many things occurring in the last few years that would certainly fall under the hate group category.
As a result it is hard to give much weight to this study. Wal-Mart grew tremendously during the good times as they used their pricing strategy to out-maneuver other retailers and warehouse stores … and during the bad times when families needed the low prices more than ever. The questions left unanswered have to do with the things they couldn’t control in that sort of study, the things I mentioned as well as simple things like what happened in locations where hate groups dwindled? It would be interesting to know more.
What do you think? Is Wal-Mart some great causal evil empire bringing hate to our country, or just a reflection of the polarization that has happened on many fronts over the last decade or so?