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Why we should all care about America's dying, terrible strip malls

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

We know the death of the American strip mall has been a long time coming. It's still hard to watch. When I read news like Gap's plan to close 175 of its 675 stores over the next few years, including 140 in 2015 according to Reuters, I think about the people supported by those low and working-class wages.

The strip mall is slowly dying

Strip malls are the kind of malls you see that have outdoor foot traffic to mostly small shops, and at least one bigger store that serves as an anchor store. There are a lot of kinds of malls — and the nicer ones are doing pretty well — but as big-box stores die, they take away the primary renter in strip malls, leaving them on life support, mall-wise. The Urban Land Institute in 2013 wrote how this impacts investment and financing:

Retail tenants want into Class A malls and leave second-class centers, while just about everyone avoids half-empty strips and office parks. ...

Web-embracing retailers, meanwhile, "kick in" internet selling strategies that dovetail with liberally shrinking store sizes and inventories, which also means they hire fewer store clerks. Fortress malls may stay full, but lesser retail locations lose tenants and value.

Millions of people are employed in thousands of small towns by big-box retailers, which have fallen out of fashion in favor of internet shopping, and it's likely that these workers' options for similar pay are limited near where they live now, somewhere between the suburbs and the city.

Malls have consciously participated in a race-to-the-bottom style model, and have no one to blame but themselves for a lack of public sympathy. No one is coming to the rescue of stores who knowingly pay their workers near-poverty wages while demanding they work unusual schedules.

Our sympathies shouldn't extend to old malls or business models — but rather to their working employees.

When popular centers like malls die, so do the local jobs they create

America's dying malls mean people will travel farther for the same pay, which will in turn lower their take-home pay — and dramatically impact their ability to save money, pay for family expenses, become homeowners, and afford continuing education. Even if you could afford it, education doesn't cure poverty. For many younger adults born in a lower-income household or retirees who need to work to since Social Security doesn't allow seniors enough without it, malls have provided a stable income, if in a stressful and underpaying fashion.

This employee tends to be either younger (under 25) or older (over 55). This family relative, friend, or former high school classmate tends to have prior experience working in the service industry, including at big boxes — it's a high-turnover industry. Gap's closures — as all the others — should be a warning to us that as much as we like to say the economy is bouncing back, structural problems are still problems we don't have a solution for, even in an Uber economy.