Federal Sugar Program and Chicago Jobs

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The Washington Post has great reporters, but there may be room for improvement in sharing research and reviewing past stories by colleagues.

An article on Sunday discussed how candy factories “had laid off thousands of workers” in a Chicago neighborhood where a new Wal-Mart has located:

“When Chicago was at its peak as America’s candy-making king, the sweet smells of Starbrite mints, Milk Maid caramels and Maple Nut Goodies wafted down North Cicero Avenue. The Brach’s plant, first opened in 1924, grew into one of the world’s largest candy factories, home to thousands of union workers pumping out 200 varieties of chocolates and hard candies. But in the 1990s, as American manufacturing moved overseas, the stream of departing blue-collar jobs here turned into a tidal wave. In 1993, Leaf Candy closed its factory, laying off 500 workers who used to make Whoppers malted milk balls. After dropping 2,800 jobs in 15 years, Brach’s moved its final 1,100 jobs to Mexico in 2003.”

The story features a sad photo of the abandoned Brach’s factory, but it does not report why all the candy businesses had departed.

Meanwhile, a different article in Sunday’s Post described how special-interest lobbying trumps ideology when it comes to the federal sugar program. Left-wing Democrats—who often claim to champion the poor—side with rich sugar barons, such as the Fanjuls of Florida. Conservative Republicans—who often claim to support free markets—support Soviet-style government controls on sugar markets.

The controls raise the domestic price of sugar and make the United States a lousy place to manufacture candy and other types of food. The Post article describes how candy manufacturers lobby against the sugar program, but that their efforts are no match for the remarkable influence of the Fanjuls and other Big Sugar crony capitalists. Who but Alfy Fanjul could have been patched through directly to the Oval Office right in the middle of a Clinton-Lewinsky “private encounter,” as the Post calls it?     

In sum, one Post story missed the economic damage done by the sugar program to Chicago, while another Post story just focused on sugar politics. But a 2006 Post story puts it all together. It accurately identifies the culprit in Chicago’s job losses, and the cause of that empty Brach’s factory:

“Producers of hard candy, such as Primrose and Brach’s, which closed its Chicago plant in 2004 to move its operations to Mexico, blame their shifting production strategies on one culprit: U.S. sugar subsidies that keep prices of domestic sugar much higher than prices on the world market. In addition, tight import quotas make it hard to import cheaper foreign-produced sugar.”

For more on the federal sugar program, see this backgrounder.