The farm subsidies that are part of the federal farm bill paid at least $11.3 million to 50 separate billionaires or billionaire-owned businesses since 1995, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The list of one-percenters getting these public benefits includes Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Chik-Fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, investment maven Charles Schwab, former Chase Bank head David Rockefeller, Sr., and current Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. It also includes Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, whose DeVos Foundation is a massive donor to conservative causes and nonprofits like the Heritage Foundation, which frequently decries government programs for the poor as over-generous.
EWG emphasized that the total figure is likely an understatement because it does not include crop insurance subsidies. Instead, the $11.3 million came from price support programs that are designed to protect farmers from year-to-year volatility in crop prices. The separate crop insurance subsidy program, whose recipients cannot be identified by law, “has become the primary government support for farm business income.” The billionaires EWG identified received their their subsidies for crops that make up over 80 percent of all crop insurance payments, leading the group to conclude that these same people almost certainly received even more taxpayer money from the more secretive program. Insurance subsidies cost taxpayers about $59 billion over the past decade, much of which ended up in Wall Street coffers.
The crop insurance program does not currently limit subsidies based on a landowner’s income, EWG vice president Scott Faber told the New York Times, but it appears likely that the ongoing farm bill conference committee will end up applying an income test to crop insurance. The Senate’s farm bill includes means testing for the subsidies, and while the House’s bill did not include that change the lower chamber instructed its conferees to adopt the income limits.
The larger sticking point between the two chambers is food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) just absorbed a $5 billion cut that reduced benefits for tens of millions of the poorest Americans, but Congress isn’t done yet. Any comprise farm bill the conference committee produces will include somewhere between $4 billion and $40 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade, given the cuts already approved by the Senate and House respectively. A $40 billion cut would slice about 5 percent off the program’s projected costs, booting 4 to 6 million people from the food stamp rolls at a time when hunger is unusually high.
Yet food stamps kept 5 million Americans out of poverty last year alone. While food assistance programs issued exactly zero major overpayments in 2012, according to an audit, the federal farm subsidy programs made 239 separate high-dollar overpayments totaling $17 million in inappropriate spending. There is less fraud in the food stamps program than in the major farm programs, but that hasn’t stopped congressional conservatives from insisting that the programs for the poor are rife with fraud — even when they themselves receive millions in farm subsidies.