Growing up in a small, dense, North New Jersey town, grocery stores dotted nearly every other corner. But that didn’t stop our family from running to the local dollar store to pick up discount household necessities to last us until the next paycheck. Recently, local governments have been trying to take that option away from families by regulating—and in some instances banning—the development of dollar stores.
Dollar stores fill a very real need for families across this country. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.
An “anti-dollar store” movement has been flashing up in towns and cities across the country in recent years. Supporters claim the stores degrade communities and keep areas poor.
Ten thousand dollar stores were added in the country between 2001 and 2018, growing from 20,000 to 30,000, largely in underserved rural or inner-city neighborhoods.
Local Governments Are Pushing Back
To curb the growth, opponents are encouraging laws to ban new stores and require that specific foods be sold at the ones that are permitted to operate.
By banning dollar stores, governments are limiting families’ options, forcing them to travel farther and longer.In 2018, the city council in Mesquite, Texas, a town with a poverty rate higher than the national and state average, decided against a full moratorium on new stores but voted to require dollar stores to be at least 5,000 feet away from each other and new ones to have at least 10 percent of the floor dedicated to “fresh fruits, fresh meats and dairy products.”
In December, the Fort Worth City Council voted 8-1 in favor of a two-mile distance requirement for new dollar stores and a requirement that they dedicate 15 percent of the floor to fresh foods.
Similar proposals have been discussed or passed in Birmingham, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Cleveland, to name a few.
Does Limiting Them Help or Hurt?
According to the US Department of Agriculture, at last count, 12.7 percent of US census tracts fell under the banner of “low-income, low-access.” This simply means a large portion of that tract’s population lives more than one mile from a food store in an urban area or more than ten miles from one in a rural area.
Dollar stores exist in these areas because of the lack of direct competition. Economically depressed areas often struggle to encourage new businesses, like full-service grocers, and struggle to maintain the ones currently operating. Dollar stores fill a very real need for families across this country. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.
By banning dollar stores, especially without the assurance of a full-service grocer, governments are limiting families’ options, forcing them to travel farther and longer to purchase things like tuna, sugar, Pampers, or other name-brand, discount items.
Sarah Nassauer summed it up in her article about Dollar General:
Dollar General is expanding because rural America is struggling. With its convenient locations for frugal shoppers, it has become one of the most profitable retailers in the U.S. and a lifeline for lower-income customers bypassed by other major chains.
This statement rings true for both rural and urban low-income communities.
Banning or limiting dollar stores does not, in turn, usher in an age of full-service grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods. It just means fewer options for those who live there.