The North American Free Trade Agreement’s first 20 years has created ripples in St. Joseph’s economy — for better or worse, some say.
NAFTA, the long-familiar acronym affixed to the pact, pledged in 1994 to narrow the income gap Mexican workers had with their counterparts in the United States. It also promised to grow jobs, combat poverty, and safeguard the environment. But critics have chided the treaty as ineffective in helping the poor in Mexico and sealing borders from immigrants seeking a better life.
Judy Ancel, director of the Worker Education and Labor Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the agreement’s success is a matter of opinion. A study she completed a decade ago reviewed NAFTA’s impact on St. Joseph.
“For the top 1 percent, it’s been terrific,” she said. Yet for Mexico, Ms. Ancel said NAFTA has been “a colossal disaster” and tragic for Buchanan County’s economy as well.
She cited the 2004 research that showed the county had already suffered the second-highest job losses in Missouri, rating behind St. Louis County. Nearly 3,000 jobs left the St. Joseph area, she added — overwhelmingly from manufacturers such as Stetson Hat, the Mead Paper Com. and Quaker Oats.
Ms. Ancel said Mead’s loss left a vacuum from jobs that had paid up to $15 an hour.
“NAFTA at the least needs to be overhauled,” she said. A Trans-Pacific Partnership now in talks will yield identical results, she said. “It’s been terrific for big agribusiness companies, but not for small farmers.”
Morris Heitman, a board member for the Missouri Corn Growers Association from Mound City, called NAFTA good for corn, distillers’ grains, and meat production. He also is a representative with the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
When mad cow disease was discovered domestically in 2003, “Canada and Mexico were key players in rebuilding the U.S. beef industry,” Mr. Heitman said. “They were the first major markets to reopen at a time when we didn’t have access to many other trade partners.”
Other views on the pact profess its local worthiness. Dr. Patrick McMurry of Missouri Western State University said the agreement is “good economics ... They (Mexico) have an insatiable appetite for American goods.”
But the U.S.’ southern neighbor “hasn’t prospered the way it should,” Dr. McMurry said.
Patt Lilly, president and chief executive officer of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce, said the partnership opened up trade, bolstering firms such as Triumph Foods and Hillshire Brands.
“There’s no doubt our ag industry has benefited,” he said, with animal health businesses prospering due to Mexican demand.
State Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, defended NAFTA’s lowering of manufacturing, transportation and consumer costs. Mexico is becoming “the new China,” he added, with many companies moving back to the continent from overseas.
One new company in Elwood echoes that trend. Pro-Dig LLC closed a facility in China and built in Doniphan County “to produce an American product manufactured by American people in an American facility,” said Mike Charlton, the firm’s president and chief executive officer.