EVERYONE AGREES that Philadelphia has a huge poverty problem. Mayor Kenney has made the sugary-drink tax a centerpiece in attacking poverty by taking some of its proceeds to fund a citywide pre-kindergarten program. Kenney's track record on reducing poverty is that he has been part of the political establishment that has presided over this horrific poverty rate for 20 years. To the best of my knowledge, Kenney has never created a job.
Jeff Brown, chief executive officer of Brown's Super Stores, with six stores in Philadelphia, joined me last week on my radio show to talk about the sugary-drinks tax and how devastating it has been to his business so far. Brown has devoted much of his life to bringing food to areas that Michelle Obama and others had deemed "food deserts." These deserts are low-income neighborhoods with no access to affordable, fresh, healthy food. The theory is that this lack of access leads to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases because of poor food choices.
Brown is now forcefully speaking out on the sugary-drink tax. He told me and Bloomberg News: "Beverage sales are down 50 percent. I've had to cut 5,000 to 6,000 hours of employment per week, the equivalent of 280 jobs."
Brown told me some of these jobs that are threatened are ones that have been offered, as part of a second-chance program, to people who have committed serious criminal offenses.
The big question to me is, can Kenney demonize Brown, as he has tried to do with executives and owners of the various soda companies? Kenney has repeatedly attacked the industry and postured that they have made huge profits off the backs of people in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods. Will Kenney now turn the mob on supermarket owners and tell them what profits are acceptable? I admire the shamelessness of those who never have done the great work of giving someone an opportunity, telling the job creators they must be punished to fulfill the greater good.
I asked Brown about the greater good of cutting poverty across the city.
"How could it be for the greater good for people to lose their jobs?" he replied.
He talked about possibly hundreds of people losing their jobs because of the tax. In fact, Pepsi, citing the tax, just announced on Wednesday that it will lay off 80 to 100 workers at three Philadelphia-area distribution plants.
Of course, the Kenney people either think the loss of jobs is a small thing or contend that jobs won't be lost.
The Kenney grand strategists tout that they got significantly more tax revenue in the first month of the tax than they had expected. They believe they will wear people down and get them to abandon their behaviors geared toward evading the tax. Brown told me he has spoken to many of his colleagues, and they maintain that the added cigarette tax that Philadelphia imposed drove away business in the last fiscal year that hasn't returned.
Kenney is a guy who constantly raises fairness issues. In my conversation with Brown, he questioned the fairness of punishing supermarkets that did the right thing by overcoming all obstacles and providing within the city, versus those who locate mere feet over the city line and reap the benefits. Where is the fairness in that?
My answer is that there is no fairness in this. We have seen a city government target an entire industry and now push back on other industries that secondarily are part of the sugary-drinks/industrial complex.
Maybe the allure of this tax was summarized by John Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University, who told Bloomberg: "If Philadelphia shows big revenues and there's not a huge amount on complaint, every city in the country will be doing it. It's a beautiful way to tax people and make them think you're doing them a favor."
If you give in and pay the tax, you'll be supporting that arrogance.
I recently ran out of orange juice on a Friday morning and didn't buy it again until my usual Saturday morning shopping in the suburbs. It might be a small act of defiance that I haven't paid the tax yet, but it's beautiful to me.
Teacher-turned-talk show host Dom Giordano is heard 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on WPHT (1210-AM). Contact him at www.domgiordano.com