SCOTT SIMON, Host:
There may be no better example of how the faltering economy effects the everyday life of low income families than a Wal-Mart store on the last night of the month. There, at around 11:00 p.m., families load up on necessities like diapers and groceries. And then, as the clock ticks into the new month, they check out, using government funds just deposited into their accounts.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay traveled to a 24-hour Wal-Mart in Fredericksburg Virginia and filed this report.
JAMIE TARABAY: Tracy and Martin Young are in their early 30s. They're in track pants and each has pushed a shopping cart overflowing with food to the check- out counter.
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TARABAY: Mac and cheese, bags of cereal, drink mixes, and cans of evaporated milk.
TRACY YOUNG: I'm still using regular milk because it blends better with cheese when you put the - for the macaroni and cheese.
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TARABAY: There's torrential rain outside, there are flash flood warnings across the area, and yet they're here, shopping. Tracy says they've been doing this midnight run on the last day of every month for so long now, they're on a first name basis with Gloria, their cashier.
YOUNG: It's been about a year. We used to go to Bloom, and then we found out we were saving more coming here.
TARABAY: At a stroke or two after midnight, they begin unloading their shopping carts at the checkout. Tracy says they set aside $500 for groceries a month. They have five kids and the money they get never lasts until the next monthly check.
YOUNG: It's usually a week and a half, right, Martin?
MARTIN YOUNG: What?
YOUNG: Like when we run out. Like, when we try to figure out what we need to do, about a week and a half before the end of the month.
TARABAY: Tracy works in retail and Martin works two jobs. One of those is as a waiter at a fast-food chain, so their monthly income goes up and down all the time. They get food stamps and government assistance for their three-year-old daughter. Tracy says all their income goes to groceries, the rent, the bills, and hardly anything is left over.
HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: There's no question that there's going to be more people living paycheck to paycheck now.
TARABAY: Heidi Shierholz is a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute. She says many families are on the brink of poverty.
SHIERHOLZ: They see wages get cut or not grow at all, so family incomes really suffer, and when family incomes take a hit, some fall down.
TARABAY: Last year, 3.7 million Americans joined those already living in poverty, meaning families of four living on just under $22,000. That's 14 percent of the population. The government says the price of food has risen in the last year. Eggs are 44 percent more. Milk is up 21 percent, mainly because of fuel prices.
Wal-Mart noticed that sales were spiking on the first of every month. In a recent conference call with investment analysts, Wal-Mart executive Bill Simon said these midnight shoppers provide a snapshot of the American economy today.
BILL SIMON: and if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it and they've been waiting for it. Otherwise, you know, we're open 24 hours, come at 5:00 a.m., come at 7:00 a.m., come at 10:00 a.m. But if you're there at midnight, you're there for a reason.
TARABAY: And so Wal-Mart has changed its stocking patterns. It brings out larger packs of items in the beginning of the month and smaller sizes towards the end. It makes sure shelves have plenty of diapers and formula.
CHARLES FISHMAN: It's definitely an indicator in terms of people who are struggling.
TARABAY: Charles Fishman is a journalist and the author of "The Wal-Mart Effect."
FISHMAN: And that tells you that there's a large swathe of America that is still very carefully calculating how much money is available and how they're spending it, even on the most basic thing, like diapers and milk and bread. And that's not the sign of an economy that has shaken off the recession.
TARABAY: At the checkout, Tracy and Martin Young see the total.
How much is it?
TARABAY: Is that under budget?
Mr. Young: Yeah, by like, what, 60.
TARABAY: So what are you going to spend that 60 on?
YOUNG: Oh, we'll probably go, you know, get some canned stuff from somewhere else, you know, where it's like 65 cents a can. So that way we got canned vegetables all through the house, never run out of nothing.
TARABAY: Tracy says their children know when the end of the month is approaching, because what they like to eat is gone and the kitchen shelves have emptied. The children are all home asleep while the parents are out shopping. In the morning, Tracy says, they'll wake up and be able to have what they want for breakfast.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.