Subsidies deter small farmers, force immigration

Oscar Abello

Imagine you’re a little kid again, back in the early ’90s. You might remember the first kid in the neighborhood who got Nintendo, or maybe that kid was you. Whoever it was, his or her house soon became filled with other kids fascinated by the new toy and clamoring to play some Duck Hunt. For us kids, Nintendo represented a higher standard of living that now included interactive electronic entertainment. They were good times, weren’t they? Soon, everyone on the block had a Nintendo, and even though everyone was happy, that first kid’s house was no longer swamped by the neighborhood kids.

Now imagine that the first kid who had a Nintendo didn’t let anyone come over. Imagine they kept every other kid from experiencing this new higher standard of living. As unlikely as this may sound, the same thing is happening in our world economy, causing the current issue of undocumented immigrants in the United States. CNN has reported that up to 20 million undocumented immigrants are now living in the United States. The growth of this number has accelerated in recent years, raising moral questions regarding how society treats its most vulnerable and the human right to seek a livelihood wherever the best opportunity can be found.

What force might drive one to a life abroad, a life away from family? Rational self-interest. Like it or not, it’s the force that drives the modern world as it marches on through globalization. So why do 20 million people find it more opportune to work informally in the United States than in their home countries in Latin America? It’s because the United States has the Nintendo, and the parents have made arrangements to prevent other countries from getting their own.

Take Mexico, for example. The staple crop is corn. Some form of it is a part of almost every meal. Most Mexican corn is cultivated from small-scale family or tenant farmers. Approximately 30 percent of Mexican corn farms are communally owned by some of Mexico’s poorest citizens.

When NAFTA was instituted in 1994, Mexico had planned to protect its significant population of family-centered corn farms by negotiating a 15-year timetable for the reduction of tariffs on imported corn. If this protection were dropped too quickly, corn-farming families would be faced with a decision – either keep farming or seek another livelihood.

Later in the year that NAFTA was passed, other factors led to Mexico’s currency crisis. The crisis led to a deep recession. Reflecting a real concern that its people would be unable to afford a staple of their diet and consequently starve, the Mexican government had to drop the protection on imported corn in order to lower corn prices and keep the people fed as best it could.

Quickly, corn came flooding in from large-scale American corporate farms, whose mass production is supported annually by almost $4 billion in federal production subsidies. The resulting lower price from the flood of corn struck at the wallets of the small family-centered corn farms in Mexico, who now had to compete against government-funded mega-farms from the United States. Guess who won. It was a shock to the farmers, and the shockwaves from that event continue to ripple across the United States, under the guise of immigration.

Some of those farmers and all of those who might have been farmers were forced to look elsewhere for a livelihood. Many continue to face this decision.

Corn farming is just the tip of the iceberg. Inequality is a massive problem in all of Latin America and so much of the world. It has deep historical roots, and it contrasts with the historical image of the United States as a land of equal opportunity. That image may or may not be a mere fantasy, but it is enough to entice the poorest of the poor worldwide to make their way here. Long-term inequality leads to immigration. U.S. governmental policies, such as agricultural subsidies, help to enforce inequality worldwide by limiting income in rural areas, home to three-fourths of those living on less than $1 per day. Perpetuating inequality is like keeping the other kids from getting their own Nintendo. Would you want that for a friend?


Oscar Abello is a junior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]