The Chicken Tax: Its Origins And Impact On Trade

Article Summary:

The Chicken Tax, a 25% tariff on imported light trucks, has a rich history dating back to 1964 when it was introduced as retaliation for European tariffs on American chicken imports. This article explores the origins, impact, and relevance of the Chicken Tax in today’s global trade landscape, shedding light on its enduring significance and the reasons behind its peculiar name.

Understanding the Chicken Tax

The Chicken Tax is a 25% tariff imposed on imported light trucks in the United States. It was established in 1964 as a response to European tariffs on American chicken imports. The origin of its name dates back to a time when it also included tariffs on various goods, including light trucks, in retaliation for European tariffs on American chickens. Despite the reduction in trade barriers over the years, the Chicken Tax remains in place, impacting the automotive industry and trade relations between the U.S. and its trading partners. It was initially introduced to address trade disputes related to poultry, but its scope has since narrowed to focus on light trucks, including many SUVs.

Historical background

The origins of the Chicken Tax can be traced back to the post-World War II era when the United States experienced a remarkable surge in chicken production. This boom led to lowered chicken prices and a substantial increase in chicken exports to Europe. However, this prosperity for American poultry farmers sparked discontent among their European counterparts.

European farmers argued that American farmers were monopolizing the chicken market and causing severe financial hardship to local producers. As a response to these allegations, several European countries, including France and Germany, resorted to imposing tariffs and price controls on American chicken imports. The conflict escalated throughout 1961, with European intervention in the chicken market causing American businesses to experience a significant decline in sales. By the end of that year, they estimated their losses at a staggering 25%.

The auto industry’s involvement

During this same period, the American auto industry found itself in a trade predicament. The popularity of Volkswagen cars, particularly the iconic Beetle and the Type 2 van, surged in the early 1960s, resulting in increased competition for American automakers. This dire situation prompted U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to address the issue of German auto imports.

In a strategic move, President Lyndon Johnson sought to gain the support of Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, to avoid a strike just before the 1964 election. He also aimed to secure union support for his civil rights agenda. As part of this negotiation, President Johnson included light trucks in the Chicken Tax. This decision had a profound impact, leading to a sharp decline in Volkswagen sales in the U.S. market.

The historical background of the Chicken Tax underscores its complex origins, involving a collision of interests between the poultry industry, European trade policies, and the American auto sector. This intricate interplay of factors has left a lasting imprint on trade relations and the automotive industry, highlighting the multifaceted nature of trade disputes and tariffs.

The Chicken Tax today

As the years have rolled by, the Chicken Tax has managed to stand its ground, primarily due to persistent lobbying efforts by the auto industry. This enduring tariff continues to shape the landscape of the American automotive market, ensuring the dominance of American-made trucks. However, it’s worth noting that the automotive industry has evolved, and the Chicken Tax’s impact isn’t confined solely to the United States.

Manufacturing beyond borders

While the Chicken Tax maintains its influence, the manufacturing landscape has undergone significant changes. Many American-made trucks, which benefit from this protective tariff, are now manufactured beyond U.S. borders. Specifically, Mexico and Canada have become key players in this production process. These countries often benefit from preferential tariff treatment under the United States-Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA), formerly known as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This agreement allows for a more fluid movement of goods and vehicles across North American borders.

Are SUVs affected?

One might wonder about the fate of SUVs in the midst of the Chicken Tax. Most SUVs, due to their classification as light trucks, find themselves subject to the tariffs imposed by this tax. This means that when you purchase an SUV, you’re often indirectly contributing to the ongoing legacy of the Chicken Tax. However, it’s important to note that SUVs classified as cars manage to avoid these tariffs. This distinction is crucial in understanding the nuances of the tax’s application in the modern automotive landscape.

Why the name “Chicken Tax”?

Curiously, the Chicken Tax holds onto its whimsical name, which may seem unrelated to its current focus on light trucks. The name’s origins harken back to a time when it carried a broader scope. Initially, it was introduced in retaliation for tariffs imposed by several European nations on American chickens. These tariffs resulted in significant financial losses for American poultry farmers and led to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to respond with retaliatory tariffs on various European imports, including light trucks.

Despite its historical connection to chickens, the name has persisted even as the tax’s scope narrowed down to light trucks. It serves as a reminder of the complex and sometimes unexpected origins of trade policies.

The bottom line

In conclusion, the Chicken Tax, with its intriguing history and lasting influence, offers a unique glimpse into the world of trade relations, tariffs, and the intricate dance between industries and governments. While it may seem like an esoteric policy, it continues to shape the automotive market, affecting everything from the vehicles we drive to the international relationships that govern their trade. Understanding its past and present significance is key to comprehending the broader landscape of international trade.


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks associated with the Chicken Tax.

  • Protection for domestic truck manufacturers
  • Potential revenue source for the government
  • Higher prices for imported light trucks
  • Complexity in trade relations

Frequently asked questions

What is the history behind the Chicken Tax?

The Chicken Tax was introduced in 1964 as retaliation for European tariffs on American chicken exports.

How has the Chicken Tax affected the auto industry?

The inclusion of light trucks in the Chicken Tax significantly impacted Volkswagen sales in the U.S.

Why is it called the “Chicken Tax”?

The name originates from the initial tariffs imposed on American chickens by European nations, leading to retaliatory tariffs on various imports, including light trucks.

Are SUVs subject to the Chicken Tax?

Yes, most SUVs are classified as light trucks and are subject to the Chicken Tax.

Is the Chicken Tax still relevant today?

Yes, lobbying efforts have kept the tax in place, influencing the dominance of American-made trucks in the U.S. market.

Key takeaways

  • The Chicken Tax is a 25% tariff on imported light trucks.
  • It was introduced in 1964 as retaliation for European tariffs on American chicken.
  • While U.S. tariff rates on industrial imports have decreased, the Chicken Tax remains.
  • President Johnson included light trucks in the tax to address issues in the American auto industry.
  • Today, lobbying efforts by the auto industry have kept the tax in place.
View Article Sources
  1. Opinion and Order – U.S. Court of International Trade
  2. Petition for a Writ of Certiorari – Supreme Court of the United States
  3. Import Duties – SuperMoney