Dollar General: The Store for Rural America’s “Permanent Recession”

Peter Funt December 19, 2017

The Dollar General Corporation, an American chain of variety stores, is headquartered in Goodlettsville, Tenn.

There are 14,321 Dol­lar Gen­er­al stores in Amer­i­ca. It’s a chain that many shop­pers have nev­er heard of, yet it has more stores than Star­bucks. Accord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal, the Dol­lar Gen­er­al com­pa­ny is worth $22 bil­lion — far more than the nation’s largest gro­cery chain, Kroger, which has five times the revenue. 

Sad­ly, how­ev­er, Dol­lar Gen­er­al is thriv­ing because, as the Jour­nal puts it, rur­al Amer­i­ca is strug­gling.” The chain builds stores where folks are down on their luck, where 20 per­cent of cus­tomers receive gov­ern­ment assis­tance, and where even Wal­mart won’t both­er doing business.

I phoned sev­er­al Dol­lar Gen­er­al stores and learned that none sells fresh meat or pro­duce; the gro­cery aisles fea­ture most­ly canned and frozen goods. Many prod­ucts, such as soft drinks, come in mini-sizes to keep unit prices low. And few loca­tions had news­pa­pers for sale.

Maybe that’s just as well, because head­lines these days report that the stock mar­ket is remark­ably high and unem­ploy­ment is sur­pris­ing­ly low. But for rur­al Amer­i­ca, news like that doesn’t hit home.

Things are look­ing up in Don­ald Trump’s Amer­i­ca, except, of course, where they are not.

The administration’s proud­est accom­plish­ment is a tax bill that ben­e­fits mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires. The Joint Com­mit­tee on Tax­a­tion finds that the Sen­ate ver­sion of the bill would increase tax­es on all Amer­i­cans mak­ing less than $75,000 a year.

As Paul Krug­man sum­ma­rizes in the New York Times: Every­thing this pres­i­dent and this Con­gress are doing on eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy seems designed, not just to widen the gap between the wealthy and every­one else, but to lock in plu­to­crats’ advan­tages, mak­ing it eas­i­er to ensure that their heirs remain on top and the rest stay down.”

In rur­al Amer­i­ca, where about 46 mil­lion peo­ple reside, employ­ment and eco­nom­ic growth have not recov­ered from the last reces­sion at a pace seen else­where in the nation. Child­hood pover­ty — per­haps the most crit­i­cal met­ric in deter­min­ing a population’s well-being — is con­sid­er­ably high­er in rur­al areas than in urban centers.

The cri­sis fac­ing rur­al Amer­i­ca is root­ed in the fact that peak-lev­el employ­ment relat­ed to nat­ur­al resources, such as min­ing and log­ging, is nev­er com­ing back.

Rur­al Amer­i­ca is mired in a per­ma­nent reces­sion. Its prob­lems are dif­fi­cult to cor­rect because of a sprawl­ing land­scape, scat­tered gov­ern­ment sup­port struc­tures and what often seems to be fed­er­al indifference.

Many among the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white rur­al pop­u­la­tion vot­ed for Trump in 2016 — a sign, per­haps, of utter des­per­a­tion rather than con­sid­ered opin­ion. But accord­ing to recent report­ing by Politi­co, Trump now intends to make the most sweep­ing changes to fed­er­al safe­ty net pro­grams in a gen­er­a­tion, using leg­is­la­tion and exec­u­tive actions to tar­get recip­i­ents of food stamps, Med­ic­aid and hous­ing benefits.

What the rur­al poor need is greater fed­er­al assis­tance, not less. They would wel­come jobs such as repair­ing the nation’s infra­struc­ture, which Trump cam­paigned on but doesn’t men­tion much these days.

As things stand, you don’t need a degree in eco­nom­ics to pre­dict rur­al America’s future. Just con­sid­er: By this time next year Dol­lar Gen­er­al expects to have near­ly a thou­sand more stores.

(“Rur­al America’s Strug­glewas first pub­lished on Cagle​Car​toons​.com and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author. © 2017 Peter Funt.)

Peter Funt grew up in New York where he worked sum­mers on the set of his father Allen Fun­t’s tele­vi­sion show, Can­did Cam­era. He grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver, earn­ing his Bach­e­lor of Arts in mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions and jour­nal­ism. He’s worked for the ABC Radio Net­work, the New York Times and var­i­ous oth­er media organizations.
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