Dengler Domain: Dollar General

Sean Dengler.

The recent news of Bobby’s Grocery and BBQ in Dysart asking for support illustrates locally the perils of running a small-town grocery store. As noted by KWWL, the derecho did not help but more importantly, Dollar General came to town. While Americans love a good pull-them-up-by-their-bootstraps story, this American story and others like it are defined by big business extracting the wealth of the communities.

Businesses like Bobby’s Grocery and BBQ are members of a community who want to see the community succeed. The owners put their blood, sweat, and tears into their business to help their customers and town. They reinvest in their community because they live in it. Dollar General is the opposite. They may employ locals, but the profits they make leave the community to go to their headquarters in Tennessee. All Dollar Generals are the same, but Bobby’s Grocery and BBQ is one of a kind.

An argument can be made that Dollar General is only going to make their competitors more competitive, but this is not the case. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, ILSR, chain dollar stores have the resources to lose money indefinitely in a community until their competitors have folded. This means they can drive their competitors out of business and once they are the only store in town, they can extract more wealth from the community which will not be reinvested. No one has ever said a Dollar General adds culture to a town. Locally-owned grocery stores do.

This may also sound counterintuitive, but according to the ILSR, these dollar stores create and exacerbate food deserts. Dollar stores siphon off sales from other grocery stores with healthy food options which create food deserts. When there are fewer healthy food options, health conditions related to poverty and reliance on cheap, low-quality food result in health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. This means more health care costs.

Another way dollar stores like Dollar General take advantage of the community is they create fewer jobs and pay lower wages than the grocery stores they often displace according to the ILSR. If Bobby’s Grocery and BBQ were to go under, it could result in a net loss of jobs for the town of Dysart with less wealth staying in the community. This should be a warning to other small towns about letting dollar stores come to their communities.

The short-term gain of lower priced items may be good, but the long-term damage these stores cause to a community is more impactful. Banishing Dollar General from Dysart at this point would be next to impossible, but if the wind turbines can be banished, anything is possible. Local leaders grow and keep wealth in the community they serve and create long term sustainability above short-term gains. When more wealth is extracted, the harder it is for the community to succeed.

Being a local leader and making those decisions is not easy, but constituents need to look for leaders and politicians who will stand up to those companies who prey on communities and consumers with their market share. On the federal level, the Federal Trade Commission helmed by Lina Khan, appointed by President Biden, is protecting Americans. The FTC recently challenged the largest supermarket merger of Kroger’s acquisition of Albertsons. Commissioner Khan came to Iowa to listen to the constituents about their concerns about Koch Industries buying an Iowa fertilizer plant or suing Amazon for illegally maintaining monopoly power. If there is one place to have faith, it is in the FTC.

When big business has too much power, their influence can ruin a way of life. Like how the visual of wind turbines could ruin the rural way of life, the existence of Dollar General and extraction of wealth is actively ruining rural communities. Go ahead and support Bobby’s Grocery and BBQ through their online fundraiser or give them your business, but it will also take the will of the people to tell their representatives that Dollar General is bad for business and bad for their community.

Sean Dengler is a writer, comedian, farmer, and host of the Pandaring Talk podcast who grew up on a farm between Traer and Dysart. You can reach him at sean.h.dengler@gmail.com.