I walk the length of the local strip mall – Eastside Marketplace, kids in tow; at the end of line is the Dollar Tree store. I usher the kids inside to feast. “Two items each – that’s the limit,” I tell them as they scamper off to find their loot plastic – molded treasures designed to provide a momentary endorphin-release before hitting the waste bin on route to the landfill.

What a dismal surrender – miserly Dad turns hero at Dollar Tree. Am I able to claw back any self-respect by telling myself (and you) that I don’t feed the family from their trough at the frozen foods section?

Perhaps there is some justification in the knowledge that you cannot run from them: Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General have more retail outlets than the combined count of all Walmarts, Krogers, Costcos, Home Depots, CVSs and Walgreens: just shy of 33,000 stores and counting. The Dollar General chain adds an average of three new stores a day.

All the more impressive considering the tsunami of bankruptcies and closures that have hit big box retailers. The debris field for 2019 includes: ShopKo, Fred’s, Barney’s, Payless and Gymboree.

Though crass, Warren Shoulberg, writing for Forbes, has hit upon Dollar stores’ formula for success: “They tend to cluster, like scavengers feasting on the carcasses of the dead.” In more mundane terms, what he means is that their target market is households with income of less than $35,000; that’s 42 percent of American households – a widening swath of the heartland.

We can all see them – standing proud, like laminated Norman Rockwell wallpaper, eyes glazed-over, mumbling to the music behind Trump’s rally podium. Dollar General chief executive Todd Vasos is well-acquainted with the segment: “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer,” he encourages investors.

This is a culture on the look-out for hope, for a next lifebuoy, for a $1 box of frozen bacon wrapped smokies. And Dollar Tree delivers. Dollar Tree bought the Family Dollar retail chain in 2015 for $8.5 billion.

In as much as this mega-retailer is an “invasive species advancing on a compromised ecosystem,” according to ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell, the disruption they cause can be viewed as a force for positive change. In economically stressed zones throughout the country, meaningful grassroots activism is being stirred, centered on what kind of communities our withering rural towns and blighted urban enclaves want to live in. Residents and city councils are coming together in ways reminiscent of the 1990s onslaught of Walmart.

An inspiring example of this activism is found in North Tulsa, Okla., and city council member Vanessa Hall-Harper. What she sees are causes for the desperation and poor health of impoverished families within her district. Whereas Dollar Tree sees market opportunity, she sees “food deserts,” the absence of grocery stores and fresh, healthy produce. She campaigned on the issues of public health and food security.

She galvanized street protests from North Tulsa residents that had a two-fold aim: first to temporarily halt the processing of all new applications for Dollar stores, and secondly, to permanently change the zoning code to prevent the clustering of Dollar stores: no new Dollar store can be opened within a mile of an existing Dollar store. In addition, she fought to change regulations to favor full-service grocery stores. Both measures eventually passed and were signed by the mayor.

And with the financial leverage of a $3 million federal block grant, the building of “Project Oasis,” a new full-service grocery store, is underway.

To be sure, imposed regulatory change is not cultural change. Hall-Harper though, is pulling the reins in a positive direction. She says, “If (zoning) is done in a racist way and a method where profits are always placed over the benefits and needs of people, then you’re going to have a permanent underclass.”

A permanent underclass? As 2020 gets underway, the corporate and political elites are raising their crystal goblets in a toast to just that very notion!

After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Resist News: https://www.usresistnews.org/

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