Urban ‘farmers’ reap taxpayer dough

Many pundits and analysts have framed the farm bill, with its ever-growing spending on farm programs and nutritional assistance (or SNAP, previously known as “food stamps”) to be an unholy alliance of rural and urban voters. The theory goes that rural voters care about agriculture subsidies while urban voters care about food stamps.

But according to interesting analysis from the Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber and Chris Campbell, the reality is a bit more complicated. After examining the USDA records for 2012, EWG discovered that 18,276 city dwellers in America’s 54 largest cities received more than $24 million from the direct payments program.

Direct payments are without a doubt the most egregious form of waste in farm policy, as payments are calculated based on the land’s historical yield rather than each year’s planting. The payments are therefore made whether or not a farmer experiences a loss, or, more intolerably, whether or not the land is planted at all.

There are seven cities where residents received more than $1 million in direct payments, led by Houston, Texas and Fresno, Calif. at $2 million each. Four cities more cities topped $900,000. Even the nation’s capital raked in $124,000, spread amog 108 recipients. As a DC resident, I can say that the city contains a fair amount of green space, but is completely devoid of cornfields, upland cotton or long-grain rice farms.

So how do urbanites receive these payments? According to EWG, most urban recipients of direct payments have an ownership interest in a farm and thus receive a portion of the payments. But from 2003-2011, Faber and Campbell point out that 25 percent of all direct payments went to farms that no longer farmed the “historical crop” the payments are based on. This comes to $10.6 billion in taxpayer dollars lining the pockets of individuals who may never even have visited farms that are no longer harvesting crops.

Luckily, both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill end direct payments in favor of other agriculture supports. However, the fate of the bills is uncertain, and an extension of current farm law beyond its Sept. 30 expiration seems likely.

Several senators have come forward to press for an end to direct payments even in the case of an extension. Without a doubt, with the looming debt ceiling debate and fights over a continuing resolution to fund government, these unacceptable expenditures should be put on the chopping block and never revived.


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