National Public Radio
Text from National Public Radio, Morning Edition
May 17, 2002
by Russell Roberts
I suspect the irony was lost on the President. On the same week he signed the farm bill, he was in the midwest advocating tougher workfare requirements for welfare moms.
Six years ago, Congress passed the Freedom to Farm Act promising to phase out farm subsidies. It would introduce farmers to the power of markets. Farmers would learn to stand on their own two feet. And taxpayers would benefit from reduced spending.
We heard similar arguments when Congress passed welfare reform. Welfare moms would learn about the virtues of the marketplace. They would learn to stand on their own two feet. And taxpayers would benefit from reduced spending.
Welfare reform was deemed a great success. Welfare rolls have shrunk by more than half. And the percentage of children living in poverty is down.
But the President's acquiescence on the new farm bill says that we have given up on reforming welfare for farmers.
I guess the farmers didn't like all that tough love. Sure it's hard to step away from the government trough. But if welfare moms can do it, why can't farmers?
There's no good economic reason for having farmers on the dole and welfare moms off it. But the politics must be pretty persuasive.
The farm lobby speaks loudly in a number of states. When farmers feel pinched or even poked, lots of their suppliers and their employees feel it and complain.
These folks have a lot of power. They are highly organized. And their representatives in Congress are powerful, too.
But there's another group that helps smooth the political way for paying big subsidies to farmers. You and me. Many Americans romanticize farming. We don't think of farmers being on the dole. Welfare moms get called lazy or cheats. But that's never stopped us from paying farmers not to farm.
When we think of farmers, we think of sturdy folk in overalls working the land. Never mind that a lot of farmers who receive government payments are millionaires with clean fingernails.
It's depressing but not surprising that politicians from farming states are in favor of spending my money and yours to enrich their constituents.
But the President campaigned on free markets and free trade. When he endorses a massive porkfest like this, it has consequences. It will be harder for him to stump for free markets at home and abroad. He's in favor of free trade, except for steel. He's in favor of self-reliance for welfare moms, but not for farmers. By signing the farm bill, he has betrayed his principles.