Green acres: Welfare for the wealthy – and dead
By Michael M. Bates
We in the Land of Lincoln have many matters about which to fret. Will the budget impasse between the Democratic governor and the Democratic General Assembly get resolved? Will Illinois ever join the 48 states that permit concealed carrying of weapons, thereby giving law-abiding citizens a fighting chance against the bad guys? What week of September (or possibly August) will the Cubs choke this year? Will Gov. Milorad Blagojevich try sticking taxpayers with another $600 makeup bill?
There’s so very much for us to ponder. Happily, we don’t have to worry if our fair state is getting its “fair share” when it comes to Federal farm subsidies. The answer is yes, yes, yes! Illinois ranks third in the nation.
We know this because the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a Web site, mulchblog.com, compiling Agriculture Department (USDA) subsidy records. The EWG is extremely liberal; I don’t subscribe to many of its objectives. One thing I do endorse, though, is cutting giveaways in general and giveaways to folks who don’t need them in particular.
Illinois received well over $3 billion in commodity program payments for USDA program years 2003-2005, according to the database. All figures reflect that period.
Chicago generally isn’t known for its farming. Nevertheless, there are over 1,600 subsidy recipients in the city. In zip code 60611, home of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, 92 gentleman/gentle lady farmers availed themselves of aid from Washington.
Adjacent zip code 60601 was shortchanged. There are only 28 recipients there, but that includes prominent farmer and former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen, receiving over $78,000. Not exactly big bucks, but it comes in handy for tips.
There are also members of the Crown family listed. They’re not as well-known as Pippen, but Forbes lists the family’s net worth as over $4 billion. Like you I’m sure, I never mind lending a hand to a family in need.
New York City didn’t do as well as Chicago. A mere 593 recipients qualified in that rural bastion.
And poor Beverly Hills was decimated by the lack of federal empathy. Only 46 recipients, with David Letterman, Barron Hilton, and former Miss America Mary Anne Mobley among them, obtained those essential human services they so desperately require.
Some mighty prosperous people are eligible for government munificence. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who Forbes estimates is worth $18 billion, qualifies for farm subsidies. So do dozens of people named Rockefeller. Banker and philanthropist David, worth over $2 billion, is one of them.
I was flabbergasted to learn that some of the same people who authorize and appropriate farm subsidies also collect them. Using the EWG database, the Heritage Foundation determined Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester and his wife received more than a quarter million dollars in subsidies between 1995 and 2005.
Members of the family of Montana Democrat Senator Max Baucus were given about the same. Politicians from both major parties have been at the USDA trough for years.
Presumably, they were alive when getting their checks. That isn’t always the case.
As reported last week in the Washington Post, the Government Accountability Office found that during a recent seven-year period, the Agriculture Department disbursed $1.1 billion to the estates or companies of dead people. The GAO recommended Agriculture verify its records with the Social Security Administration to confirm checks are sent to individuals still able to cash them.
We all know that for many years plenty of Democratic voters have maintained cemetery addresses. But I think this is pushing constituent service a little too far.
Farm subsidies are a remnant of the New Deal policies initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt. Back then, almost one in four Americans lived on farms and the collapsing incomes experienced were considered a genuine emergency.
The subsidies were going to just be temporary. Where have we heard that before?
The situation is very different today. Only one in 100 Americans farm and the average farm household has an income of more than $80,000.
Yet taxpayers are giving away more subsidies than ever. Millions, possibly billions, are going to the rich, not to small, struggling farmers.
And all this doesn’t even take into account how subsidies drive food prices up for families far less affluent than many of those getting subsidies.
The House will very soon take up a $300 billion, five-year farm bill that contains huge subsidies. Democrats won control of Congress this year by claiming to be reformers committed to opposing special interests. Moreover, President Bush has signaled he might veto yet another bloated agricultural monstrosity.
My guess is that, as usual, the special interests will win. I guess we’ll just have to take comfort in knowing it’s simply a temporary program.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the July 26, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.