September 24, 2010

The Paycheck Cycle

Problem 1: if you need to point out the card number...
Problem 2: this is not a paycheck

The CEO of WalMart, discussing how he manages the fluctuations in day to day consumer spending:

The paycheck cycle... remains extreme. It is our responsibility to figure out how to sell in that environment... large pack at sizes the beginning of the month, small pack sizes at the end of the month. And to figure out how to deal with what is an ever-increasing amount of transactions being paid for with government assistance.

He is describing how Walmat customers spend more when they get their check, and less at the end of the month.


And you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it's real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs,and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when electronic -- government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

What's in your mind right now? Above are a bunch of words.  What do you infer from them?


Clear your mind, just think about this strategically.  Ok, these women-- they are women, right?-- are waiting for the government money to be activated.  Fine.  But why are they there at midnight?


And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they've been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours... But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.

What he's telling you is that on the 29th of the month, kids are running out of food.


The conclusion that there are kids without food is obviously obvious, and undoubtedly you already knew that there were hungry kids in America.  But what was your actual first conclusion when you read customers were milling around at 11pm?

Your mind jumped to the causes of that behavior, not the consequence.  Are they wasting their money, what?

And your solutions to "that problem" are related to your perception of that person in the store.  But the kid didn't ask for this life, and whatever solution you come up with has an effect on that kid.  Or, stated more clearly: if your solution doesn't help that kid, it is not a solution; it is a self-aggrandizing political stance.  Masturbation is fun, but don't expect anything productive to come from it.  And you will be shamed if you get caught.


Note the date on this story: September 2010.  What does it mean?  It means people in America are struggling right now, living paycheck to paycheck.  We hear about the bankers/bailout, we hear about unemployment, but here are some untold stories about the devastating impact of the economic crisis on ordinary Americans.

FALSE.  This has nothing to do with the current economic situation, this has been going on for decades.  It is framed as related to a current "crisis" so that you are less attuned to the ordinariness of this.

"It's the recession."  No, the recession "ended" last year; again, what you see outside is normal.  What you saw for the past 20 years was CGI.


Maslow's and his hierarchy suggest that in individualistic cultures, failing to meet basic needs results in anxiety and inhibited development.   So if these kids are underfed regularly at the end of the month, their basic needs aren't being met.  So we'd expect them to be more anxious and tense.  Hence, psychiatry.

Maybe ADHD is an invented diagnosis, maybe not.  But the symptoms are exactly what one might expect when the basic needs aren't met.

Note, however, that the institutional response to this very basic problem is the total mobilization of an unrelated service sector.  Medicaid will happily pay $50 a patient visit to prescribe Ritalin, not because Ritalin works or doesn't but because it is cheaper than spending $1000 a month to feed the family.

That's the truth about mental health parity, about healthcare reform. The government needs you to have access to healthcare way more than you actually do.

Or, as Maslow put it: if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.


So we should increase welfare payments?

Won't help.  Evidently, middle class Americans cannot effectively manage their own mortgages.  Why would we expect poor people to be better at it?

How big a welfare check should be is a separate question.  When data reveals widespread patterns of behavior in society (e.g. paycheck cycle), then something in the society creates that behavior.  If many poor parents can't manage their families' (no sic) meals, it suggests  failure in social services or education.

A simple example.  Note the welfare recipients are waiting for their monthly allowance to be activated electronically on their cards.  But since it's all electronic, why can't the money be activated weekly?  Or, if the data reveal that that results in faster spending (so now 4 days per month the kids are hungry rather than one day), the cards could be filled every 6 months.  Or, based on the pattern of spending, each individual would be given the money in different amounts at different times.


The irony: this story occurs at Walmart, notorious for paying people low wages and etc.

That's actually not irony, it is the whole point: labor costs.

The solution that the system has conditioned you to believe is the answer is to give them something.  The political divide differs only on what to give them: outright cash payments?   Jobs? 

What you need to focus on is the why.  Solving this isn't a simple matter of raising the food benefit by an amount equivalent to one more day.  The system needs to educate the poor on how to live life as a poor person. 

But then the system has to confront the reality that it produces the children who are more likely to grow into poor adults as a direct consequence of treating poor people as an aberration of the system, rather than as a fully predictable if unintentional result. In other words, the systematic treatment of poor people as a unexpected result of the system is the very part of the system that maintains the poverty.