December 02, 2011

Save money, live better. Really?

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
Given my close personal and proud connection to the CEO of one the nation’s largest banks, I cannot honestly present myself as an impartial judge in the messy street level socioeconomic debate that has erupted in our nation. But I can, without concern of personal bias, authentically gasp at the media’s recent presentation of Wal-Mart as the white knight in contrast to our myopically maligned financial institutions. Seriously, folks — that’s beyond the pale.

Two recent articles — one by NPR — gushed about the disgruntled individuals who, angered by bank fees real or perceived, have gravitated toward Wal-Mart’s MoneyCard. The card, basically a rechargeable gift card on steroids, costs $3 a month. I get that $3 is less than $5; but, isn’t it also as obvious that the card is less because it is less? Why the joy and praise?

Surprisingly, neither article pointed out that the card charges the customer to spend his or her own money — which was the oft repeated complaint against the bank’s proposed debit card fees. And it is really true here. That is all the card does. It allows a person to spend his or her own money. There is no credit, interest or other features attached.

More unsettling, the articles only touched lightly on the fact that the MoneyCard is not a bank card and that Wal-Mart is not a bank. Neither article really made it clear that the blue giant is not taking deposits, it is facilitating future sales. Recharging the card is tantamount to making a deferred purchase, not a savings account deposit.  

In his defense, Eamon Murphy of AOL’s “Daily Finance” did point out that the card “offered little or no protection for customers' funds.” But he did not elaborate on why. He also did not point out that customers are charged fees for ATM withdrawals even at the Wal-Mart’s in-store ATMs — an obvious prodding to induce card holders to make purchases at the register where cash-back is free.

Even with the current sensitivity to big business and big money, there was no mention that Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world and largely owned by a family of billionaires. In 2010, the behemoth had 2 million employees and sold $405 billion in merchandise. $305 billion of those sales were made in the US. That’s nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the US.  

Can you think of $1,000 worth of stuff you need from Wal-Mart? Obviously, there are a lot of empty calories and impulse buying in those billions. However, there is no mention of that in the articles, nor is there any reference to a study by University of North Carolina Economist Charles Courtemanche about the impact of Supercenters on our waistlines. His research suggests that the growth in Wal-Mart Supercenters since 1980 has directly contributed to the increase in obesity in the US.

Wal-Mart is also often named as one of the contributors to our other national weight problem: the deficit. Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart purchases a lot of stuff from China. How much is not absolutely clear, but it is tens of billions. While not mentioned in the articles praising the wonders of the Wal-Mart MoneyCard, others sources claim that Wal-Mart is responsible for as much as 10% of our trade deficit with China.  

The articles also did not question the MoneyCard’s $10 bonus for setting up payroll direct deposit. This gave me the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as when I heard a casino ad promising bonus dollars for customers cashing paychecks for chips. Can Wal-Mart really want us to save money and live better if they are encouraging customers to deposit their paychecks on a hyped-up gift card?

I am not telling anyone not to shop at Wal-Mart. After all, I am just a columnist, not a US senator. I am also not suggesting that anyone occupy anything other than their own home. I do not support the invasion of private companies and the scaring of rank and file employees. But, as a brother, a Catholic, a deacon, a writer, a humanitarian, a believer in free markets, a patriot and a person who struggles with his weight, I have to ask: How could the press, in this supercharged atmosphere, write such an uncritical article about Wal-Mart’s MoneyCard? 
Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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