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EWG: Nearly 28,000 U.S. Farmers Received Subsidies or Disaster Relief Payments for 32 Straight Years

The Environmental Working Group says these payments accounted for $19.2 billion in federal dollars over this time.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has issued a report on what it says are almost 28,000 U.S. farmers who received taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies or disaster relief payments for 32 straight years. 

That’s according to a new EWG analysis of USDA data. It says these payments tallied around $19.2 billion of federal dollars over this time.

“There has to be an incredible combination of bad luck or creative accounting in play here,” says Scott Faber, EWG vice president of government affairs. “It is shocking to us that many farmers managed to get a payment, either a subsidy or disaster repayment, for 32 straight years.”

Faber says this contrasts with support by the U.S. House of Representatives for farm bill legislation to impose new work requirements on parents with young children and older Americans who receive anti-hunger assistance. The House failed to pass a new farm bill last month, but leaders have pledged to try again.

USDA data show that between 1985 and 2016, a total of 27,930 recipients received payments every year, totaling at least $19.2 billion, according to EWG officials. The average payment for the 32-year period was $687,204.

The largest two recipients are in an area of Louisiana represented by Representative Ralph Abraham (R-LA), a member of the House Committee on Agriculture. This year, Abraham’s position on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – better known as food stamps — was included in an April 12 press release by his office.

“SNAP provides an important safety net for many Americans, but I want it to be an on-ramp to success, not a lifestyle for work-capable adults. The new farm bill makes reasonable and streamlined changes to eligibility requirements that will result in more adults who are ready for the workforce. These changes will help people break out of the cycle of poverty and climb the economic ladder.”

Abraham has personally received more than $440,000 in farm subsidies, according to EWG.

EWG officials note federal law does not limit farmers from receiving farm subsidies or disaster payments, even if they have received a payment every year for 32 straight years. Farmers remain eligible for subsidies so long as their average annual adjusted gross income is less than $900,000, or less than $1.8 million for farm couples, and they have more than $1,000 in farm sales, according to EWG. 

Farm subsidy recipients must be “actively engaged” in farming, but EWG officials say many subsidy recipients do not live or work on farms. EWG officials say they recently found 17,836 farm subsidy recipients in the nation’s 50 largest cities. 

Last week, the General Accountability Office reported that in 2015, almost one fourth of farm subsidy recipients did not provide personal labor on the farm.

What EWG Supports

“The question is if money invested through the equivalent of trickle-down economics to wealthy farmers is better invested in infrastructure, such as increasing rural broadband to make it more attractive for employers to relocate in communities,” says Faber.

He adds that three Farm Bill areas – the rural development, conservation, and energy titles – are all cut under the House bill. The conservation bill would help farmers address water quality problems, while the energy title could invest in the new energy infrastructure, he says.  

“I think the House farm bill moves us in the wrong direction in two big respects,” says Faber. “It funnels more subsidy dollars to a wealthy few, and it cuts funding for rural development and energy and conservation programs that create a more attractive environment for employers.”

Stricter SNAP Guidelines

Antihunger assistance programs are subject to much stricter income and asset tests, according to EWG officials. Poor people remain eligible for SNAP benefits for only 10 months on average. Very few SNAP recipients receive other government benefits, according to EWG.

In addition, healthy adults between 18 and 49 without children are eligible to receive antihunger assistance through SNAP only for three months out of every three years, unless they are working at least 20 hours a week.

If enacted, the House farm bill would have changed current law to require parents with young children and workers up to age 60 to prove every month that they worked at least 20 hours (or participated in a job training program), or they would lose their SNAP benefits.

Rather than reducing dependence on farm subsidies, EWG officials say the House farm bill would have created new subsidy loopholes by allowing a farmer’s cousins, nieces, and nephews to receive payments, regardless of whether they live or work on the farm. 

EWG officials say the bill also would have made billionaires eligible for subsidies again. And the bill did not tighten rules that allow off-farm residents to receive farm subsidies, according to EWG officials. 

EWG officials say amendments to ensure subsidies only go to farmers who live and work on farms, and amendments to deny subsidies to millionaires and billionaires were filed by Representatives Mark Meadows, (R-NC), Keith Rothfus (R-PA), and Bill Posey (R-FL). 

But the amendments were blocked from consideration by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), who said the following of SNAP: “What’s unfair is a government program that encourages dependency rather than incentivizing independence via self-sufficiency.” 

However, the odds are against the House bill ever becoming law. “It’s going no place in the Senate,” said Representative Collin Peterson (DFL-MN) at a meeting in April of the North American Agricultural Journalists. 

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