This weekend, NBC News offered viewers a heartwarming portrait of Alice Walton and the Crystal Bridges art museum she opened two years ago in Bentonville, Arkansas. Heartwarming, that is, until you recall more about the woman behind the $1.2 billion complex and its $500 million collection of American art. After all, the $20 billion Alice Walton isn't just one of the six Walmart heirs whose total wealth of $90 billion by 2010 equaled that of the bottom 49 million families American combined. With its underpaid employees representing the single largest source of food stamp and Medicaid recipients in most states, her company's workforce requires an estimated $2.66 billion in taxpayer-funded government assistance each year. And as it turns out, as one the nation's leading crusaders against the estate tax, Alice Walton wants more for her family--about $7 billion more.
To be sure, Crystal Springs and its educational programs for poor children are impressive. But with their purchases at Walmart and their tax code that now allows the Waltons to deduct 39.6 percent of their contributions to what Forbes described as "tax-minimizing Walton Family Foundation," in a very real sense the American people "built that." Now, NBC's Harry Smith says "the little girl who used to catch crawdads in a Bentonville creek" is giving back. As she put it:
"I remember what my mom told me. She'd say, 'You know Alice, if you give the thing you love most, you will be giving the right gift.'"
But the thing Alice Walton really loves the most--and the thing American taxpayers for sure need most--is money. And that she has no intention of giving.
As Forbes first highlighted two years ago, between them the six Waltons combined have over $90 billion. As Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders explained in his famous filibuster of December 2010, the elimination of the estate tax (now 35 percent for individual estates over $5 million, $10 million for a couple) could potentially save the Walton family in excess of $30 billion. Alice's share would be in the neighborhood of $7 billion. Unlike other billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, zeroing out of the estate tax (a levy paid by less than a quarter of one percent of families) would cap a years-long effort for Alice and her clan. While she was a large donor to Mitt Romney's SuperPAC for that reason, her crusade started long before. USA Today summed it up in 2005:
Led by Sam Walton's only daughter, Alice, the family spent $3.2 million on lobbying, conservative causes and candidates for last year's federal elections. That's more than double what it spent in the previous two elections combined, public documents show.
The Waltons have joined a coterie of wealthy families trying to save fortunes through permanent repeal of the estate tax, government watchdogs say. The election of President Bush and more conservatives to Congress gave momentum to the long-fought effort. The Waltons add more.
And to be sure, during the crippling recession that began in late 2007, the Waltons added a lot more to their own bank accounts.
Back in the fall of 2007, Walmart chief financial officer Tom Schoewe told Wall Street analysts, "Tough times are actually a good time for Walmart." Now we know just how good.
As labor economist Sylvia Allegretto of the University of California and Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute documented last year, the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) showed that the crippling recession which began five years ago has been a bonanza for the Walton Six. Between 2007 and 2010, the wealth of the Walton family members jumped from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion even as median family wealth fell by 38.8 percent. The result?
In 2007, it was reported that the Walton family wealth was as large as the bottom 35 million families in the wealth distribution combined, or 30.5 percent of all American families.
And in 2010, as the Walton's wealth has risen and most other Americans' wealth declined, it is now the case that the Walton family wealth is as large as the bottom 48.8 million families in the wealth distribution (constituting 41.5 percent of all American families) combined.
Now, there is nothing wrong with Alice Walton using some of her vast fortune to create a free art museum for "the people who have not been comfortable." But given the facts that (a) the rich give a much smaller share to charity than the less-well-off; (b) the wealthy pocket the lion's share of the federal charitable tax deduction, and; (c) "last year, not one of the top 50 individual charitable gifts went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed," it's only natural for Americans to ask why their tax code so heavily subsidizes Walton's Crystal Bridges. As for the estate tax so despised by Alice Walton and her ilk, analyses consistently show that higher rates not only generate more tax revenue but encourage greater charitable giving.
But for Alice Walton and her family, charity begins at home. For her, avoiding taxes isn't just a science. It's the highest form of American art.
(This piece first appeared at Perrspectives.)