While big-box retailers might offer the lowest prices, they also may be altering a community's social and economic fabric enough to promote the creation of hate groups, new research shows.
According to the study by professors at Penn State University, New Mexico State University and Michigan State University, the number of Wal-Mart stores in a county correlates significantly with the number of hate groups in the area.
The amount of Wal-Mart stores in a county was more statistically significant than other factors commonly regarded as important to hate group participation, such as the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education, the research found.
"Wal-Mart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices," said Stephan Goetz, a Penn State University professor who also serves as the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. "But there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects."
A key factor is that many local merchants are forced out of business after finding it difficult to compete against large retailers, according to the study.
Local business owners are typically members of community and civic groups, such as the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, which help establish programs promoting civic engagement and fostering community values. Goetz said losing members of such groups may cause a drop in community cohesion.
"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.
The large, anonymous nature of big-box retailers may also play a role in fraying social bonds, which are strongest when individuals feel their actions are being more closely watched, the study found.
For instance, people may be less likely to shoplift at a local hardware store if they know the owner personally.
While the study only specifically examined the correlation between hate groups and Wal-Mart stores, the researchers feel the presence of Wal-Mart in an area generally indicates the establishment of other types of big-box retailers, such as Home Depot and Target.
"We're not trying to pick on Wal-Mart," Goetz said. "In this study, Wal-Mart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer."
The researchers suggest Wal-Mart use the study’s data to determine strategies for supporting local groups that can foster stronger social and economic community ties.
The study, which was also conducted by New Mexico State University adjunct professor Anil Rupasingha and Scott Loveridge, Michigan State University professor and director of the Northcentral Regional Center for Rural Development, was recently published in the online version of the journal Social Science Quarterly.
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance business and technology writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.