Forbes Billionaires Reaped Millions in Farm Subsidies

Founders of Microsoft, Chick-fil-A, DISH Network, and Charles Schwab Corp., among recipients

Washington, D.C. – At least 50 billionaires or farm businesses in which they had a financial interest benefited from $11.3 million in traditional farm subsidies between 1995 and 2012, according to a new analysis released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Congress, meanwhile, has proposed changes to the federal farm bill that could well increase their haul of taxpayer dollars.  

The billionaires profiting from farm subsidies were identified by matching the September 2013 Forbes 400 list, which ranks the richest Americans by their net worth, with EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database, which tracks farm subsidy spending by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The list of billionaires who cashed in on farm subsidies includes:

  • Paul Allen (Net worth: $15.8 billion), co-founder of Microsoft
  • Charles Ergen (Net worth: $12.5 billion), co-founder of DISH Network
  • Philip Anschutz (Net worth: $10.3 billion), owner of Anschutz Entertainment Group and co-founder of Major League Soccer
  • Leonard Lauder (Net worth: $7.6 billion), former CEO of the Estee Lauder Companies Inc.
  • Jim Kennedy (Net worth: $6.7 billion), chairman of Cox Enterprises
  • S. Truett Cathy (Net worth: $6 billion), founder of Chick-fil-A
  • Leslie Wexner (Net worth: $5.7 billion), CEO of L Brands Inc., which owns Victoria's Secret
  • Charles Schwab (Net worth: $5.1 billion), founder of brokerage firm Charles Schwab Corporation
  • Penny Pritzker (Net worth: $2.2 billion), U.S. Secretary of Commerce

Click here to see the full list of billionaires who have received farm subsidies.

“Farm programs that benefit billionaires are indefensible and irresponsible,” said Alex Rindler, EWG policy associate and author of the analysis. “The information shows that our broken policies propped up the richest few at the expense of taxpayers and struggling families – that’s a backwards vision that no one should be proud of.”

Many of the same billionaires may have also received premium subsidies through the federal crop insurance program, according to the analysis, but taxpayers have no way of knowing who has received this support. Current federal law prohibits USDA from disclosing the identities of crop insurance recipients. 

On average, taxpayers cover 62 percent of the cost of insurance premiums. Last year, the program cost taxpayers $14.1 billion, according to USDA’s Risk Management Agency. In 2011 alone, some 26 policyholders received more than $1 million each in premium support, according to government data analyzed by EWG.

Unlike traditional farm subsidies, crop insurance subsidies are not subject to means testing or payment limits and do not require farmers to adopt basic environmental protections.

The EWG analysis points out the House and Senate farm bills being weighed by a congressional conference committee could actually provide these billionaires with millions of dollars more in subsidies. Both bills would shift subsidies from traditional farm programs, such as Direct Payments, to heavily subsidized crop insurance.

“The farm bill conferees should reject any bait-and-switch proposal that boosts subsidies to billionaires and the most profitable and successful farm businesses,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources. “Lawmakers in Washington should include means testing and limits on premium subsidies to ensure family farmers have a secure safety net, but prevent the kind of abuses our analysis reveals.”

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