Congress has been wrangling for months over how to trim the taxpayer burden of bountiful subsidies to farmers. Here’s a thought: Stop paying the dead ones.
Between 2008 and 2012, we now know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) disbursed more than $36 million to some 6,300 farmers who had bought the farm (so to speak). The improper payments were revealed in a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Taxpayers may take some solace from the fact that the number of expired payments has declined. For example, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), which oversees income subsidies and disaster payments, had paid a whopping $1.1 billion to 172,801 deceased farmers between 1999 and 2005.
At the suggestion of the GAO, the agency in 2007 began computer-matching the names of subsidy recipients against the Social Security Administration’s “death master file.” (About time.) Consequently, the agency has recouped about $1 million out of a total of $3.3 million in improper FSA payments for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The rest apparently remains with bereaved relatives or business partners of the intended recipients.
Alas, there’s no similar progress to report for the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), which administers the federal crop insurance program. (Taxpayers subsidize about 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums.) The agency has no procedures in place to prevent payments to those in heaven’s pastures. Between 2008 and 2012, the RMA provided $22 million for some 3,434 farmers two or more years after death.
During the same period, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) made $10.6 million in payments to 1,103 individuals one year or more after their death, according to the GAO.
With a national debt of $16.5 trillion, $36 million in payments to those who have already cashed in is chump change. What’s really maddening is that officials of the RMA and the NRCS don’t even check whether taxpayer money is going to the intended recipients—let alone whether they are actually still breathing. But that’s what happens when money is redistributed by those who don’t earn it. It just slips away.