PhotoResearchers at Penn State University say they have noted an odd correlation. In communities where big box retail stores flourish, so do "hate" groups.

The researchers suggest the the presence of these stores, such as Walmart, Kmart and Target, may alter a community's social and economic fabric enough to promote the creation of groups that play on different types of prejudice.

The number of Walmart stores in a county is significantly correlated with the number of hate groups in the area, said Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural economics and regional economics, Penn State, and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.

Indirect cost of low prices

"Wal-Mart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices," said Goetz. "But there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects."

The number of Walmart stores was second only to the designation of a county as a Metropolitan Statistical Area in statistical significance for predicting the number of hate groups in a county, according to the study.

The researchers, said that the number of Walmart stores in a county was more significant statistically than factors commonly regarded as important to hate group participation, such as the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education.

What's behind this statistical correlation? The researchers have several theories.

The researchers suggested several theories for the correlation between the number of large retail stores and hate groups in an area.

Economic impact

Goetz said it may have something to do with the economic impact a big box store like Walmart has on a local community. Local merchants may find it difficult to compete against large retailers and be forced out of business.

Local business owners are typically members of community and civic groups, such as the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Losing members of these groups, which help establish programs that promote civic engagement and foster community values, may cause a drop in community cohesion, according to Goetz.

"While we like to think of American society as being largely classless, merchants and bankers are part of what we could call a leadership class in a community," Goetz said.

Nothing personal

The large, anonymous nature of big-box retailers may also play a role in fraying social bonds, which are strongest when individuals feel that their actions are being more closely watched. For example, people may be less likely to shoplift at a local hardware store if they know the owner personally, Goetz said.

While big box retailers are likely to recoil from the notion that their presence in a community has anything to do with the presence of hate groups, the researchers say it's nothing personal.

"We're not trying to pick on Walmart," said Goetz. "In this study, Walmart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer."

Goetz suggests the store chain could use this study to find ways to play a role in supporting local groups that can foster stronger social and economic ties in a community.

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