But neither has Wal-Mart been a boon for local communities. Poverty rates, for example, declined in most counties during the period studied, but they declined by less (poverty rates didn't improve as much) in Wal-Mart counties. By other measures, Wal-Mart had no noticeable effect. Overall, counties with and without Wal-Mart had similar growth in population and income per person.
For example, Wal-Mart is widely believed to destroy local firms and jobs and to have a dampening effect on wages. But fedgazette findings suggest the opposite: Firm growth, employment and total earnings were somewhat stronger in Wal-Mart counties and, in some cases, even in the retail sector. The research does suggest that retail earnings per job fell in virtually all counties studied. But they actually fell by less in Wal-Mart counties.
In sum, fedgazette findings suggest that Wal-Mart has a slightly positive effect on counties where the retailer decides to set up shop. But the effects are small; one could call the results mostly a wash. As a result, maybe the most concrete—and surprising—conclusion is that Wal-Mart's presence (or lack thereof) has little or no predictive power regarding the economic success or failure of a county.
Lastly, the fedgazette looked at Wal-Mart counties six years prior to the store opening, and these counties showed little evidence of having stronger income growth leading into the opening of the Wal-Mart. In other words, it's not obvious that Wal-Mart was able to ride the coattails of strong county economies and hide any potentially negative local effects.
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The fedgazette also looked at shorter time periods, and the general findings were little changed. Over a two-year window—one year before store opening and one year after opening—Wal-Mart had little effect on average personal income or population; employment increased in Wal-Mart counties relative to non-Wal-Mart counties, especially in retail; and growth rates in earnings per job were generally similar, but were higher in retail for Wal-mart counties. Those findings held steady when the time frame was widened to six years (one year before opening, five years after opening).
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Regardless of predisposition to Wal-Mart—whether a vocal critic or a live-and-let-live advocate—none of these fedgazette findings can be considered the last word on the Wal-Mart effect because they are not "causal" in nature; that is, we cannot say that Wal-Mart is directly responsible for any particular outcome—positive or negative—in the counties investigated. This analysis merely offers correlated facts. Proving a causal relationship between Wal-Mart and local economic trends is rife with complications. Indeed, such complexity is one of the reasons controversy continues to swirl around the company.
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Taxable retail sales for 1985 and 2005 were gathered for Wal-Mart and non-Wal-Mart counties in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. (Data weren't combined across states because tax rates and items eligible for sales tax are different among states and changed over this period. Also, Wisconsin data were from 1991 and 2005.)