Ag Policy Blog

EWG Data: Billionaires No Longer Reap Millions in Farm Subsidies

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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I don't think millionaires or billionaires should get federal subsidies. I suspect that opinion is shared by a high percentage of Americans. If we're cutting services and aid at the bottom, we should be hacking subsidies at the top.

But you can't repackage old information and serve it up as something new. I understand the desire to do so, especially when you have spent a ton of time compiling the information. Maybe you feel the need to get your point across or make yourself relevant one more time. New information be damned.

All that said, Environmental Working Group put out data on Thursday headlined "Forbes Billionaires Reaped Millions in Farm Subsidies." Wow, that's interesting. It was a big deal to some, including the New York Times, which went right off the EWG data and turned an article out of it.

"The federal government paid $11.3 million in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies from 1995 to 212 to 50 billionaires or businesses ... " the Times' lead declares.

Yes, the essence of what EWG stated was true. The NGO of farm payments just forgot to mention that the vast majority of this fleecing of federal taxpayers happened at least a decade ago. This new report is a rehash of older information. A couple of years stick out: 2003, the year after a new farm bill was signed, and 2008, the year the last farm bill was signed. In one of those two years, almost all of the payments to billionaires stopped.

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In fact, since 2008, only two or three of the farms owned by billionaires had received any farm payments at all. I scanned through the list of 50 billionaire farms provided by EWG and found two farms that collectively received $185,000 total. Thus, since the last farm bill was passed, 48 of those farms owned by billionaires had not received anything.

Now, clearly someone slipped through the cracks on the $185,000, but that's not $11 million. The lion's share of that $11 million goes back to the 1990s when the federal government operated more like an ATM machine.

If I would have had more time, I could have totaled up the information since 2003, but I realized I had already spent too much time and energy on a non-story. That was the case until I got a press release from a handful of farm-bill reformers in the House who denounced the payments. It's embarrassing because the reformers should have been pointing out how these payments to billionaires virtually stopped because of earlier efforts they championed in farm bills.

Instead, they went for moral outrage:

"Outrageous Farm Payments to Billionaires Highlights Urgent Need to Reform Ag Policy."

"WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) continued to call for major reforms to current farm subsidy policy in the wake of a report released today that details a long list of billionaires who are profiting from taxpayer-funded farm subsidies.

"The report, released by the research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), found that the federal government paid $11.3 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies to 50 billionaires (or businesses in which they have an ownership stake) between 1995 and 2012. EWG compiled the list by matching their Farm Subsidy Database with the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. According to the list, the billionaires who received these farm subsidies have a collective net worth estimated to be $316 billion."


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