Study Finds Thousands Receive Farm Disaster Aid At Least Every Other Year for Over Two Decades
Pressure is building in Congress for pre-election enactment of a $6.55 billion farm disaster aid bill, by far the most expensive such measure in history.
Proponents of the bill describe the crop and livestock impacts of recent dry weather in the Great Plains as unusually severe, likening it to the conditions during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But there is nothing unusual about this year's clamor for emergency agricultural disaster aid, millions of dollars of which will go to the very same farmers and ranchers who have collected it every other year, or more frequently, for decades.
Over the past 21 years, taxpayers have provided $26 billion in emergency agricultural disaster aid to more than two million farm and ranch operations, a new Environmental Working Group (EWG) farm-by-farm data investigation of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) records has found. The Agriculture Department sent out disaster aid checks every year for the past two decades, with payouts exceeding one billion dollars in 11 of the 21 years studied.
The EWG analysis found that the vast majority of the 2 million farmers and ranchers who have received disaster aid over the past 21 years have received it infrequently, with 75 percent collecting payments three years or less out of 21.
However, a minority of the recipients are chronic beneficiaries of disaster funds, with some 21,000 of them collecting disaster aid more than 11 years out of 21, amounting to $2.8 billion, or more than 10 percent of the total payments. These chronic beneficiaries received an average of $118,000 in disaster aid over the period, and collected aid checks on average for 12 of the 21 years.
"Agricultural disaster aid should be thought of as serving two distinct groups of farmers and ranchers," said EWG president Ken Cook. "The vast majority rarely receives disaster checks from taxpayers, and the amount of assistance is modest. The second group, the primary source of the political pressure for disaster aid every year, is a small minority of its recipients, but they are chronically dependent on disaster aid and over two decades have collected it every other year."
The $26 billion total for 1985-2005 does not include billions more paid through the heavily subsidized federal crop insurance program or the "emergency economic assistance" that roughly doubled subsidies for commodity crop farmers between 1998 and 2002. The pending $6.55 billion Emergency Farm Relief Act is so large, it amounts to 25 percent of the total amount of agricultural disaster aid taxpayers have provided over two decades.
In addition to weather-related losses, the omnibus measure under consideration in the Senate (The Emergency Farm Relief Act of 2006, S. 3855) would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for projects and programs completely unrelated to drought and hurricane damage, including a subsidy bonus of $1.5 billion in "energy assistance" directed exclusively to subsidized crop farmers who collected over $22 billion from taxpayers in 2005 and will receive billions more this year.
"EWG supports reasonable disaster aid for farmers and ranchers with proven, weather-related losses, unless provision of that assistance entails offsetting cuts to conservation, nutrition, rural development or other non-commodity program funds that have been slashed by Congress repeatedly for years," said Cook.
EWG continues to oppose proposals to include additional funds for subsidy crop farmers-and only subsidy crop farmers-in the form of a 30 percent increase in their fixed direct crop subsidy payments, for the supposed purpose of reimbursing them for elevated energy costs in 2005 and 2006.
"This 'energy aid' is patently unfair to the vast majority of American farmers and ranchers who not only would not qualify for it, but who do not receive the underlying subsidies to which this "energy assistance" would be added," Cook said.
Whether or not Congress provides disaster aid this year, EWG thinks lawmakers should require USDA to report within 90 days on the patterns of chronic disaster aid dependency documented in the EWG study. The USDA should also examine the extent to which the same farmers and ranchers habitually receive both emergency disaster aid and federally-subsidized crop insurance claims.
"Taxpayers should not feel obligated to provide "emergency" disaster relief to the same farm and ranch operations every other year or more frequently over decades," Cook said. "New approaches to agriculture, ranching and resource use are needed where growing conditions are so challenging that disaster aid has become an integral part of normal operations, as it is in the belt of disaster aid dependent farms and ranches that stretch from the Canadian border south to Texas through the Great Plains," Cook added.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. The Group's farm subsidy database is searchable online at http://www.ewg.org/farm/.