Wal-Mart is frequently in the news as America’s most controversial retailer and largest private employer, with 1.2 million U.S. workers. But behind Wal-Mart is a quiet family that is just beginning to flex the full muscle of their wealth and power. And in the coming years, they will give efforts to privatize public education an enormous boost.
They are the Walton family, including Helen, the 86-year-old widow of the late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and their four adult children, Alice, Sam, Jim, and the late John. John Walton died in a plane crash in June 2005, leaving his share of family wealth to his wife, Christy Walton.
The Walton family is a formidable concentration of private power and wealth, which they exercise through political contributions, charitable donations, and in the marketplace through their ownership stake in Wal-Mart and other ventures. Together they are worth more than $90 billion, exceeding the combined net worth of Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. The Waltons own 39 percent of Wal-Mart. Their estimated dividend income is $880 million a year, or $175 million for each of the Walton heirs. And this wealth and income will only grow as Wal-Mart aggressively expands in the U.S. and overseas.
To deliver on its “We Sell for Less” pledge, Wal-Mart leverages its tremendous market power to squeeze its suppliers to produce for less. This forces producers to seek the lowest possible environmental and labor costs and often to shift production to sweatshops in China and other countries where workers have little power. With their controlling interest, the Walton family could be a moral force for good, urging the company to end such practices and raise wage and benefit standards for their own employees. Instead, they remain silent.