When the agriculture lobby tries to justify its hugely expensive and inefficient system of taxpayer-paid subsidies and price supports, it invokes the “small family farm,” conjuring up Grant Wood’s famed “American Gothic” painting of a farm couple.
Actually, over half the money goes to less than 10 percent of the farms, generally huge corporate operations, but there are some small family farms in there somewhere as well as some other, more surprising beneficiaries — billionaires.
Scripps Howard News Service reporter Lisa Hoffman plowed through a newly available U.S. Department of Agriculture database and found that more than 50 American billionaires have received government farm handouts from a program created to help those same mythic struggling small farmers.
She matched the USDA records against Forbes magazine’s roster of 400 American billionaires and got nearly five-dozen matches. Among them are such sons of the soil as banker David Rockefeller Sr., hotel magnate William Barron Hilton and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
These handouts are completely legal, and their recipients can’t be blamed for taking advantage of them. There’s a reason they’re billionaires. And sometimes the connection between the beneficiary and the subsidy is remote. Cosmetics heir Leonard Lauder got about $4,000 through his 5 percent interest in an organic dairy farm. And even the most generous billionaire subsidy — $306,627 from 2003 to 2005 to Whitney MacMillan of the Cargill agribiz dynasty — is a small sum measured against his $1.2 billion fortune. And some of the payments are for such benign purposes as conservation and wildlife protection.
It’s still not right. As a Heritage Foundation analyst told Hoffman, “It is not within the nation’s values to tax waitresses and welders to subsidize multimillionaires.”
And right now it’s especially relevant. Congress is wrestling with a five-year, $283 billion farm bill, currently stalled by disputes over reforms. As it happens, six U.S. senators shared more than $700,000 in subsidies over the decade. Although well short of billionaire status, the six aren’t exactly struggling small farmers either.