Our right to know about Wal-Mart

Georgia and Wal-Mart: What Republicans don't want us to know.

Published January 23, 2006 10:04PM (EST)

Exhibit 1 in the case for why society requires more corporate disclosure:

Followers of the Maryland vs. Wal-Mart saga may recall mention of a survey completed in Georgia that revealed one in four children of Wal-Mart employees were on the State's PeachCare for Kids health insurance program. By comparison, the figure for the state's next biggest employer, Publix, was 1 in 22.

First reported in the press by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Andy Miller in February 2004, the survey packed quite a punch, raising eyebrows and inciting action across the United States. As noted here late last week, Idaho lawmakers requested that a similar study be conducted in their state, and others are following suit, albeit in the teeth of hostile lobbying from Wal-Mart.

It's a pretty big deal when a government study results in such far-reaching implications. I wanted to read the study, so I went looking for it. Turns out, it's not to be found. In fact, the data was never meant to be public at all. According to Miller's story, "The PeachCare employer listings appear in an internal Department of Community Health memo and were not publicly released. But the results recently surfaced in an AFL-CIO report about Wal-Mart benefits and subsequent comments by union officials."

I did find the October 2003 AFL-CIO report, which devotes a paragraph to the survey. The footnote to that paragraph cites "Unpublished data provided by the Office of the Governor."

This is what appears to have happened. Roy Barnes, the Democratic governor of Georgia, used his executive powers to order a one-time survey to determine where the kids enrolled in the public assistance health insurance program were coming from. But there was no public release of this data. Instead, most likely, someone leaked the info to the AFL-CIO and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO said it did not recall how it had originally obtained the info. The AJC's Miller simply noted that the data was not officially released.)

Last year, Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield, a Democratic state representative in Georgia, initiated a bill that would require "the state to disclose the names of employers who have 25 or more employees receiving public health care benefits under the PeachCare or Medicaid programs." But in a heavily Republican-dominated legislature, the bill failed. (Georgia's current governor, Sonny Perdue, is a Republican.)

Put two and two together. Republicans do not want the citizens of Georgia to know which employers are screwing their workers on healthcare the worst. And this is hardly an isolated incident. In state after state, Wal-Mart lobbyists fight any kind of legislation that would cast this kind of light on corporate affairs, and for the most part, they are willingly assisted in their battle by the GOP.

This should be a campaign issue that Democratic candidates holler from the highest mountaintop. Republicans don't want you to know the truth. A market economy is supposed to depend on good information to function efficiently, but Republican politicians in Georgia would rather we didn't know the real impact of corporations upon society. Because if we did, we'd demand tougher laws.

The astounding irony is that a survey that wasn't supposed to be public, in a state that has since declined to mandate any further such surveys, has had such huge national repercussions. Kudos to Andy Miller at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and kudos to the AFL-CIO for getting the word out first.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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