Lowry repeated misleading Wal-Mart health care defense

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

National Review editor Rich Lowry repeated the misleading claim that "only about 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, the same proportion as other retailers."

In his December 6 column, National Review editor Rich Lowry, in an effort to refute claims made in the documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, argued that Wal-Mart is not "a welfare queen," repeating the misleading claim that "only about 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, the same proportion as other retailers." Lowry did not note that an internal Wal-Mart memo acknowledges that 27 percent of children of Wal-Mart employees are enrolled in Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, that figure is significantly greater than the percentage for all large retailers, as is the total percentage of children of Wal-Mart employees who either are on Medicaid or SCHIP or are uninsured.

From Lowry's December 6 column:

Although The High Cost attacks Wal-Mart as a welfare queen, only about 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, the same proportion as other retailers. [New York University visiting scholar Jason] Furman points out [in a report titled, Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story]that a Wal-Mart worker who has to decide whether to buy the company's family insurance policy at a cost of $1,800 annually or take Medicaid coverage instead is wise to go on Medicaid. "The beneficiary of choosing Medicaid is the worker," Furman writes, "not Wal-Mart."

Like Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby and New York Times columnist John Tierney, who have offered similar misleading defenses of Wal-Mart, Lowry based his column largely on Furman's paper. (Mallaby and Tierney apparently relied on a preliminary version of Furman's paper dated November 14; Furman released a revised version dated November 28.) In his paper on Wal-Mart, Furman did state that "[i]n total, ... 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, which is similar to the percentage for other large retailers and is comparable to the national average of 4 percent." Furman's source for this comparison was an internal memo written by M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits. The New York Times reported on the memo in an October 26 article.

But in his column, Lowry omitted a different figure that Furman included in the revised, November 28, version of his paper: Citing the Chambers memo, Furman noted that 27 percent of the children of Wal-Mart employees are enrolled in Medicaid or SCHIP.* According to the memo, the national average for all employers is 22 percent. Chambers's memo further stated that "[i]n total, 46 percent of [Wal-Mart] Associates' children are either on Medicaid [or SCHIP] or are uninsured" -- a fact not noted by either Furman or Lowry.

In a supporting exhibit, Chambers's memo claimed that 36 percent of all retail employees' children are on Medicaid or SCHIP -- a figure that exceeds Wal-Mart's 27 percent. Citing the memo, Furman repeated these figures.

However, as Media Matters for America has noted, an October 26 paper by researchers at UC-Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education presents a very different conclusion. Using data from the 2005 Current Population Survey, the UC-Berkeley researchers "analyzed the difference between Wal-Mart's reported numbers and those for large retailers in general (defined as those with 1,000 or more workers)." They found that "22% of children of employees of large retailers are enrolled in Medicaid/SCHIP, compared to 27% reported by Wal-Mart for their employees' children." In contrast to Wal-Mart's claim, the UC-Berkeley researchers reported that only 22.7 percent of children of all retail employees are enrolled in Medicaid or SCHIP. Additionally, they noted, "While 46% of the children of Wal-Mart workers are either uninsured or on Medicaid/SCHIP, the comparable figure for children of all large retail workers is 29%."

* A previous Media Matters item referring to Mallaby's November 28 column and Tierney's November 29 column (subscription required) stated: "Furman, Mallaby, and Tierney all failed to reveal that in that same paragraph of the Chambers memo [noting that 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are enrolled in Medicaid], Chambers acknowledged that children of Wal-Mart employees receive Medicaid or SCHIP at a significantly higher rate than the national employer average." Mallaby and Tierney's columns apparently cited the November 14 preliminary version of Furman's paper, which did not include data on the percentage of Wal-Mart employees' children enrolled in Medicaid or SCHIP. The November 28 version of Furman's paper does provide this data.

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