One datapoint on widening income inequality in education: Dollar Store is rocking

How do we know income and wealth inequality is soaring in the United States? I’ve been tracking this vital trend for years, largely by following a variety of research efforts that approach the topic from multiple angles, methods, and datasets. But sometimes economic inequality becomes very clear with a single business story.

Most American readers know the Dollar General chain.  It specializes in selling low-price items (hence the name) to largely low income people.  “Dollar General operates in a space that is immune to Amazon : small purchases of low-margin, inexpensive consumables”, as Seeking Alpha puts it.

How are they faring in the richest nation in the world?  Better than ever.  Not only did their revenue rise more than 11%, which is impressive, but Dollar General is going to open up new stores.  Not just a handful, either.  According to their CEO, Todd Vasos:

For fiscal 2018, we have plans to execute approximately 2,000 real estate projects comprised of 900 new stores, 1,000 store remodels and 100 store relocations.

900 new Dollar Generals.  That’s 18 per state, on average.  “[M]ore stores than McDonald’s has restaurants in the entire country”, according to NPR.

Why I am writing about this?  Listen to how Vasos explains his company’s move:

The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer.

The American economy – the one that’s the richest in the world, the one who richest have generated enough money that Swiss banks call our era a new Gilded Age – is creating more poor people.  Dollar General is quite naturally – and literally – capitalizing on that.

Vasos went on:

We are putting stores today [in areas] that perhaps five years ago were just on the cusp of probably not being our demographic, and it has now turned to being our demographic.

There are more and more people in more areas that are likely Dollar customers.  247Wall Street describes them as “lower income people in remote locations.”

Why does this matter for the future of education?  Several reasons.

First, it’s more evidence that American society is splitting apart, as income inequality (amid other forces, of course) increasingly separates us into ever more distant classes.  This has enormous implications for our culture, our society, and obviously our politics.  All of that impinges on education.

Second, consider that this story points to a growing underclass.  As higher education tries to expand its reach, it will increasingly recruit from people who have to shop at Dollar General.  Such students will tend to have weaker secondary school experiences, or be first generation college students, possibly have family and friends wracked by the opioid epidemic.  Colleges and universities will have to support them in ways that may represent a cultural shift and/or cost more money, further increasing tuition.

Third, combining these two previous points, we can see the possibility of increased resentment of experts.  Since we tend to associate expertise with education, and not inconsequentially income, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Dollar General customers hating those who would direct, teach, regulate, and ultimately rule them.

And a question: who in higher education shops at Dollar General?  Answering that question tells us something about our own culture, our inner divides.

How can educators respond to this trend?  How will America as a whole?


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7 Responses to One datapoint on widening income inequality in education: Dollar Store is rocking

  1. App Accessibility Experiences in Higher Education says:

    Christian Louboutin vs the flipflop store, sacrificing style for comfort or knowing I can afford flipflops Both do cover the feet- well almost, just a minor price difference… but I thankfully invested in bitcoin by shopping at the dollar store. Just a short story that might have been true….

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I shop at the local Dollar General (life on #SS) and presume working adjuncts shop at their most convenient Dollar General — or kin (Dollar Store, Dollar Tree, etc). A few more points — a significant number of customers are obviously more prosperous but, for whatever reasons, looking to stretch their shopping dollar. And the genre is particularly popular in rural areas where there is not enough traffic to support a Big (or even medium) Box store.

  3. CogDog says:

    They are quite prevalent in the small towns here in North Central Arizona. I believe the citizens of Pine, AZ, which has zero chair stores, fought of zoning plans for one.

    There are 6 within maybe 5 miles of the small town of Camp Verde, AZ, located halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff, Google Maps indicating 3 are Dollar General, 2 are Family Dollar, and One Dollar Stop. I only noticed because there is a new one way out away from all commercial development, on the road I take up to Strawberry. It’s in an area of suburban homes, small winery operations, and a lot of trailer homes.

    One might also look at the frequency of pay day loan stores, which seem to pop up in the same areas.

  4. David Knapp says:

    Dollar Store is the go to for office party needs and well visited by the middle class here in Louisville Kentucky.

  5. gmphap1 says:

    Great, great thoughts, Bryan, thank you! How should we respond? We should reach out! We should set up alternative education processes. We should put education in a box on the DG stores and encourage all shoppers to never stop learning. Life-long learning is critical.

  6. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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