Farm Subsidies Going To The Wealthy?

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Each year, taxpayers fork over about $20 billion in farm subsidies to help keep America's farms up and running. But over the years, more and more of the payments have gone to Fortune 500 companies, the wealthy - and even members of Congress, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

Ken Cook, who researches the issue, says it makes about as much sense as putting a milk bucket under a bull.

"The big farms get most of the money. Ten percent of the beneficiaries get over 70 percent of the payments, because the bigger your farm, the more money you get," said Cook, who is president of the Environmental Working Group.

At their best, farm subsidies help American farmers who do well some years, but would go out of business other years when crops don't grow or prices are weak.

But just look at the number of beneficiaries who live - of all places - in New York City. They're often people who've bought or inherited land that qualifies for subsidies, though they live in high-rent city homes.

Even New York billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr. receives farm subsidies. Even the members of Congress who vote on farm subsidies and earn $165,200 government salaries can get payments. A dozen of them or their close family have gotten a total of $6.2 million dollars over 10 years.

One of them is Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry.

He's grown rice his whole life, and has collected subsidies from the start.

Today, he and his family members have interests in several farm corporations. Attkisson asked him: "You and your family's interests received almost $2.4 million in federal payments from 1999 to 2005 according to records?"

Berry said: "I don't have any idea. That sounds like an awful lot of money to me."

Whatever the amount, most Americans would hardly envision Berry as the disadvantaged farmer.

"Can you tell me what your net worth is?" Attkisson asked.

"My net worth? I don't have any idea," Barry replied. "Well, it's not very much I know."

"This range says $1.7 million to $6.6 million," Attkisson read to him.

"That's probably pretty close," Berry said.

The new farm bill working its way through Congress attempts to cut off some of the wealthy. Under one version, no one earning more than $1 million a year could get subsidies.

That wouldn't affect Berry. He's worth a lot, but says his yearly income falls below the million-dollar mark.

There's nothing illegal or improper about the wealthy receiving farm subsidies. Cook says it's just not fair to taxpayers.

"Shouldn't we ask farmers when they come in the door, like we ask so many other people, for government food programs, 'do you need the money? How are you doing financially?'" Cook said.

For some well-to-do farmers, the harvest is especially bountiful: They're sowing the land and reaping your tax dollars.
  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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