Subsidizing Farmers But Not the Poor Still Evil

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You look like you could use a check from Uncle Sam!

House Republicans are fighting to impose a $40 billion cut to the food-stamp program while also fighting to lock farm subsidies in place at a higher level than Democrats want. The combination of positions strikes me as indefensible. After all, farmers earn more than the average American, and there’s no rationale for handing government money to somebody just because they own a farm as opposed to a convenience store or a hot-dog stand.

Megan McArdle stands up to say the Republican position is perfectly defensible. McArdle doesn’t like farm subsidies but is even more outraged at disparagement of Republican fiscal priorities, urging, “It seems worth trying to answer the question, rather than merely marinating in our own moral and logical superiority.” The Republicans have a perfectly defensible basis for cutting benefits for poor people but giving them to farmers, she explains — reciprocity:

Here’s one reason Republicans might support farm subsidies, but not food stamps: the sense that you have to do something to get them. Ethanol subsidies are wildly distortive -- bad for the environment, bad for the poor and bad for the U.S. budget. But the people collecting them do actually have to grow some corn, or make some ethanol, which is then used by other people. They’re not being given money just for breathing.

Actually, that’s not true. The Department of Agriculture does hand out money to people to do nothing. So, yes, they are being given money just for breathing. In fact, breathing is optional — millions of dollars in farm subsidies go to farmers who are dead. This underscores the fact that farm subsidies are a reward for people who own farmland, which they may well have inherited.

OSWEGO, NY - JUNE 20: Members of the Dolan family walk home with bags of food after a food distribution by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Mobile Food Pantry on June 20, 2012 in Oswego, New York. The mobile food pantry program was introduced in 2007 in the Southern Tier of New York and covers nearly 4,000 predominately rural miles. The converted beverage truck delivers fresh produce, dairy products and other grocery items to individuals and families in need. The pantry typically distributes for a period of two hours and provides 100 to 160 families with food. According to the 2010 Census, 15.72% the population serviced by the mobile pantry live at or below the federal poverty level. According to statistics presented at a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing, almost one in seven Americans are living below the poverty line with a significant number of them being children.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
You moochers should go get lost. Photo: Spencer Platt/2012 Getty Images

National Review also opposes farm subsidies but neglects to mention them in an editorial defending the GOP’s food-stamp cuts. Its argument for the cuts, echoing those put forward by House Republicans, is to instill a good old-fashioned work ethic, just like welfare reform:

Those who have been dependent on food stamps for more than three months over any three-year period would be required either to work 20 hours a week, perform equivalent community service, or enroll in an approved job-training program. We have in the past had good luck with applying similar work requirements to the receipt of welfare payments — at least, we have when the government is willing to enforce the rules — and we can expect similar success in the matter of food stamps.

Is the “work requirement” they plan to impose on food stamps like welfare reform? There are three highly salient differences. Welfare benefits were specifically designed in a way, dating from their origin as a replacement for a male breadwinner, that discouraged work. Second, welfare reform had funds for jobs and training programs. Third, it was passed in a full employment economy.

None of these conditions holds true for food stamps. There’s no good evidence the program discourages work. Republicans are including no funding for job training or entry-level jobs. And unemployment, especially for unskilled workers, is extremely high. National Review asserts that cutting food stamps will “inculcate in food-stamp recipients the habits necessary to obtaining full-time employment.” It produces zero evidence that current food-stamp recipients are neglecting to find work so they can enjoy their $1.40-per-meal subsidy.

Now, before McArdle takes umbrage again, I will concede that there is a moral principle at work here in the right-wing position. The principle is that people who have lots of money work harder and are more deserving than people who have very little of it, and it’s wrong for the government to support the latter at the expense of the former. Usually that principle goes unstated, passing along silently beneath the cover of arguments about free markets or small government or encouraging growth. The special value of the farm debate is that by combining the GOP’s opposition to handouts for the poor with its support for handouts to the nonpoor, it exposes the party’s deeper moral views. I find them quite ugly.