Government Study Finds Farm Subsidies Lined Pockets of Millionaires

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Pork in the nation's breadbasket is no surprise. But a recent audit of agricultural subsidies shocked even farm-state politicians, after it found that millionaire farmers were receiving millions more in government assistance.

"This is the kind of abuse that really, I think, makes taxpayers unhappy. It makes them angry and they have every right to be," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

Farmers were supposed to be eligible for the funding only if they earned less than $2.5 million and derived at least 75 percent of their income from farming and similar activities.

But the Government Accountability Office's review of subsidies from 2003 to 2006 found 2,700 recipients did not meet those requirements yet still received funding -- totaling $49 million.

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The report found the money went to millionaires like the owner of the Utah Jazz. A Florida land developer also received $3 million and the founder of an insurance company received $300,000.

Eight-hundred of the recipients were corporations, and another 615 were trusts or partnerships.

Most of the recipients lived nowhere near a farm. Many lived in and around major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

But supporters say the urban addresses don't mean the subsidies aren't getting to legitimate farmers.

Many family farms incorporate for legal reasons and maintain a separate mailing address, according to the Farm Bureau.

The government also said many of those who received hand-outs never got their hands dirty, since 40 percent of the payments were for conservation programs -- which paid people not to farm.

But the Farm Bureau's Tara Smith said those were legitimate payments.

"You don't have to be a farmer to sign up for some of these programs, but they may be paying folks to keep land idle, to not develop land," Smith said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes about $16 billion per year in farm payments, far more than the $49 million in question.

But experts say the size of the oversight is not the only problem because the department admits it doesn't even check the tax records of those who apply.

Though the government has tightened eligibility requirements for the program, the GAO predicts taxpayers could get burned for twice as much this year.

"It's nonsense. We are under no obligation to think of it as anything other than fat cats concerned that someone is finally going to say to them 'boys, you are on your own,'" Cook said.

President-elect Barack Obama even singled out the GAO report last month as an example of wasteful spending that he intends to stop.