Commentary: Wal-Mart moms are a potent and frustrated force

The Kansas City StarFebruary 19, 2013 


Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)


The Wal-Mart mom does it all. She raises kids, works a job or two, runs Girl Scout troops, cares for elderly relatives and walks the family dog. Without her — regardless of where she shops — entire households, schools and neighborhoods would go to pieces.

Also, she sways elections.

After gaining notice as an important swing voter in the 2008 presidential election, she joined in the Republican rout in the 2010 mid-term, then edged back to the Democratic side last November.

So why doesn’t she feel more empowered?

Ten Kansas City area mothers participated this week in a Wal-Mart sponsored focus group with Public Opinion Strategies. In a candid discussion, they portrayed themselves as worried about their futures and frustrated by a political establishment from which they feel ignored and disconnected.

“The system is so broken,” said Beth, who at age 50 was one of the older participants. “You can’t stay in office without playing the game, and if you play the game you forget what people’s lives are like.”

Courtney, a 34-year-old mom with two small children, was more blunt.

“Cut their pay,” she said. “Let them live like we do. Paycheck to paycheck.”

Intrigued by the political clout attributed to its shoppers, Wal-Mart has been surveying mothers since 2010.

The women who participated in a focus group in Kansas City the morning after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address all have at least one child 18 years old or younger at home. They follow the news, but don’t identify strongly with either political party. They shop at Wal-Mart at least once a month.

Listening in on the conversation, it was clear to me the anxiety created by the economic downturn has not left this group, even though some of them listed household incomes above $75,000.

At least two said a spouse was out of work. Raises the last few years, if they’d received any, had been negligible. All were acutely aware of the decrease in paychecks caused by the rise of payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. A couple of moms said they’d had to reorder their household budgets because of it.

The recent sharp increase in fuel prices has created additional financial havoc. When asked how they planned to spend the $100 they would receive for participating in the focus group, the response was emphatic. No splurges for this group. The mini windfall would go toward groceries and gasoline.

A couple of the moms had watched Obama’s address in its entirety. Most had seen it summarized in news reports.

Their feelings about the president and his speech seemed mostly favorable. His call for universal pre-kindergarten education was especially well received.

“I paid for my children to go to preschool because I thought it would give them a leg up,” said Cindy, a mother of children 12 and 15 years old. “It would be great if the government could help with that.”

Obama’s call for background checks and gun safety measures was met with a kind of ambivalence. Most of the moms said they favored some restrictions, though they had different opinions on what, if anything, would help to curb gun violence. Support for more and better mental health treatment was the one common thread.

About the president’s assertion that “the state of the union is stronger,” the Wal-Mart moms were dubious. Their own circumstances don’t necessarily reflect that and they’ve seen no change in behavior from Washington.

“I think we’re trying to get that way,” Courtney allowed.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get that way,” said Susan, a 43-year-old mother of three. “I’m not all that hopeful.”

But if Obama is correct that “the task of our generation” is to build up “a rising, thriving middle class,” as he said in his speech, he needs the Wal-Mart moms on board. They are the glue that holds everything together.

These moms are a formidable force. If they feel marginalized, it’s because too many politicians are listening to the wrong people.

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