Red State Welfare
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Published: June 28, 2007
Drive across the empty reaches of the Great Plains, from the lost promise of Valentine, Neb., to the shadowless side roads into Sunray, Tex., and what you see is a land that has lost its purpose. Many of the towns set in this infinity of flat have a listless look, with shuttered main streets and schools given over to the grave.
With upwards of $20 billion a year in federal payments going to a select few in farm country, you would think that these troubled counties would have a more vigorous pulse. After all, corn and wheat prices are at record highs, and big manses here and there, with Hummers in limestone driveways, indicate that somebody is doing well.
It would be one thing if the despair and disparity in farm country were the sole products of history, if time had simply passed it all by. But it comes as a jolt to realize that government policy is much to blame.
The Red State welfare program, also known as the farm subsidy system, showers most of its tax dollars on the richest farmers, often people with no dirt under their fingernails, at the expense of everybody else trying to work the land. Like urban welfare before reform, agriculture subsidies reward those who can work the system — farming the government, as they call it around the diner.
And when you dare ask about the farmer in Colorado who received more than $2 million in handouts, or all those absentee landowners collecting their $150,000 government checks in gilded urban ZIP codes, the reaction is: it’s none of your business.
Thus, the American Farm Bureau, which represents some of the biggest corporate welfare recipients, is terrified that a motley mix of peasants are now at the door with pitchforks. On their Web page, the bureau warns members that “forces outside of agriculture” are demanding change. The audacity! The farm bureau’s attitude to the taxpayer is: just write the check and shut up.
Every five years or so Congress drafts a farm bill. The last farm bill was a masterpiece of Soviet-style goals and giveaways signed by that faux-rancher who likes to show off his cowboy boots, President Bush.
This massive piece of legislation could be a blueprint for rural America. But it has become a spoils system where the congressmen-turned-lobbyists make sure that their clients get triple-figure checks for growing things that the nation already has in surplus.
This year, things are different. It’s not their farm bill anymore. It is quickly becoming a food bill, a design for the American diet, possibly the worst in the industrial world. Budget hawks, nutritionists, small farmers and big farmers who grow fruits and vegetables without subsidies, alternative energy advocates and rural renaissance types — all are ready to do battle over the new plan.
The farm bill sets the rules for the American food system and helps to subsidize obesity. It rewards growers of big commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat — the foundation of our junk food nation. So, a bag of highly processed orange puff balls with no nutritional value is cheaper than a tomato or a peach. Wonder why.
The reformists, by and large, are not trying to get in on the gravy train. They want to revitalize rural America, to encourage farmers’ markets, contribute to environmental health and to make it easier for poor people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
In Congress, Jeff Flake, a maverick Republican from Arizona who angered party leaders by taking on earmarks, and Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents dairy country in Wisconsin, are leading the charge. There is likely to be a huge fight later this summer, because the old guard who protect the farm lobby are embedded deep in the early-stage committees.
Once you step into this stuff, it’s hard to pull away. I worked a summer on a dairy farm, hauling hay, shoveling manure and taking the occasional dead calf out for burial. The farmer lady offered to pay me with a cow or a check; I took the money.
Thanks to the Environmental Working Group, we know exactly how much money every subsidized farmer is getting in every county. The group’s database shows that just 1 percent of all farmers receive about 17 percent of the payments — averaging $377,484 per person, over three years.
That’s a nice handout for these stalwarts of Red State values, prompting two conclusions: the system is broken, and I should have held onto my cow.
Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.