Meet Jeb, 53, a third-generation wheat farmer in rural Oklahoma.
He's married, has three children and oversees a 600-acre operation that employs several migrant workers. He's a deacon at his church, an ambassador for his local chamber of commerce and treasurer of his county's Republican Party.
Now meet Sheila, 27, a single mother of two in urban New Jersey.
She's a part-time convenience store clerk and takes GED courses at night. She lives with with her grandmother in an apartment operated by the city housing authority. Her civic involvement is limited to voting Democrat in presidential elections.
Guess who's on welfare?
Most would assume the answer is B. In a perfect world, the answer would be C. Unfortunately, in 2014 America, the answer is D.
Well-to-do Jeb is enrolled in the Federal Crop Insurance Program, which subsidizes his profits regardless of how well or poorly his business performs. Some people call this "corporate welfare."
Perpetually penniless Sheila gets grocery money through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which also is called "SNAP," "food stamps" or just plain "welfare."
These wildly disparate handouts emanate from the same legislation – the Agricultural Act of 2014, or simply the "Farm Bill." At nearly $1 trillion, this pork-laden spending plan is the gold standard of government waste and perhaps the single-best legislative example of why this country is doomed.
Alexis de Tocqueville posited in the 19th century that America's undoing would occur once "politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money."
That's exactly what the Farm Bill allows politicians to do – loot the treasury on behalf of the lobbyists, special interest groups and voting blocs who keep them fat and happy in Washington Wonderland.
This is nothing new.
The bill continues a legacy of waste that started 60 years ago when campaign contribution-sniffing politicians realized they could make the Great Depression's temporary, emergency measures permanent.
At $956 billion - a figure which outporks the infamous 2009 "stimulus" package by $200 billion – the Farm Bill is four-fifths food stamps and one-fifth agribusiness subsidies. It's a swindle easily marketed to the masses. Who's against farmers and poor people?
Media hailed its February passage as a symbol of “bi-partisanship cooperation.” Translation: Republicans from conservative farm districts forged an unholy alliance with and Democrats from liberal-leaning urban ones to funnel goodies to their core constituencies with minimal bickering.
“Tying farm subsidies to food stamps is the only way to get the bill through Congress,” notes Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. “It’s classic logrolling.”
Country-club conservatives and limousine liberals share equal blame. But Republicans deserve more scorn. Democrats are just doing what Democrats do. Republicans, as the so-called "conservative" party, should know better.
Clowns to the left, jokers to the right.
Let's start on the right with Jeb. First off, it's extraordinarily unlikely Jeb needs government assistance.
Even if he's not the most successful farmer in his zip code, he's most assuredly not the caricature of a denim-clad rube living in a shotgun shack under the constant specter of bankruptcy and starvation. Today, American agriculture is dominated by sophisticated family corporate enterprises and Fortune 500 companies such as Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson Foods and Pilgrims Pride Corp.
Improvements in mechanization and biotechnology have made farming more productive and lucrative than ever. Net profits were $131 billion last year, and the average farmer’s household income ($104,525 last year) far exceeds the U.S. average.
Yet under current rules, Jeb can earn up to $900,000 per year and still qualify for benefits that guarantee his revenues never fall below 86 percent of his previous years’ peak earnings. On top of that, taxpayers pay 62 percent of his business-insurance premiums.
You may have heard this year's farm bill ended so-called “direct payments" – the $5 billion worth of checks sent each year to farmers whether they grew anything or not. But don't be fooled: the expanded crop-insurance program now funnels that money through an untraceable network of nearly two-dozen private companies.
Waste and abuse were visible under the old direct-payment system, which is how we learned 75 percent of all subsidies went to the 10-biggest farming companies, and that “farmers” such as billionaire Ted Turner and rock star Bruce Springsteen were on the take.
If you long for the days before hidden handouts, go to the Environmental Working Group’s searchable farm subsidy database (http://farm.ewg.org) to see where some of your $256 billion went between 1995-2012, including $174,470,830 to the six-county Augusta-Aiken metro area.
“The farm lobby is now happy to launder subsidies through the insurance companies because they're not transparent,” Edwards said. “Just as much money is pumped out, but now in a hidden fashion.”
So what makes Jeb & Co. – a group that accounts for less than 2 percent of all U.S. workers – worthy of such largess? Are they more special than, say, restaurant owners or home improvement contractors? What if Congress offered similar handouts to oil or pharmaceutical companies? The riots would make Occupy Wall Street look as uncivil as an insurance seminar.
Farmers, luckily, are mostly immune from anti-corporate hysteria (the aforementioned rube myth). But they still buy lobbyists by the bushel.
The most heavily subsidized crops – corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and rice – have their own lobby groups, as do many non-subsidized commodities, whose producers hope to get rolled into future farm bills (as U.S. catfish and maple syrup producers managed to do this year).
The agriculture industry keeps a tight hold over politicians. And much like their low-income compatriots who feed from the food stamp trough, they currently have no incentive to kick the welfare habit.
The food stamp program that pays for Sheila's Pop Tarts and grape soda was created in the late 1930s for poor people to purchase food considered "surplus" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. President Johnson made it part of his "Great Society" in 1964 and it's been hanging around ever since.
Enrollment grew rapidly under President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and has positively exploded under President Obama's mission to "fundamentally transform" America. State and federal bureaucrats have loosened eligibility requirements and made enrollment easier than applying for a job. They also have spent an astounding $41.3 million advertising food stamps.
The marketing is working. Just 14 years ago, 17 million Americans were in SNAP. Now it's 48 million, costing taxpayers more than $78 billion annually. In Welfareland®, only Medicaid is a more popular ride.
Statistically, once someone like Sheila climbs aboard, it's hard to get her off. More than 56 percent of food stamp recipients stay on the dole five years or longer. Only a third of recipients report "earned income" (what some people call "a paycheck") despite the fact that one in 10 are ABAWDs – bureaucratese for an "able-bodied adult without dependents."
If you saw coverage of President Obama signing the bill (awkwardly sharing the stage with farm equipment) you might have come away with the impression more Americans will starve this year because heartless Republicans “slashed” the food stamp portion by $800 million.
That sounds severe until you realize the bill is 49 percent larger than the 2008 farm bill, and that the food stamp cut amounts to 1 percent.
Not much of “slash.” More of a snip, really.
And when you realize the snip simply closes a bogus heating-assistance loophole 17 states were using to pad their food stamp receipts, the snip isn’t really a snip. It’s more like common sense. We should be shocked they actually did it.
So here we are – in the American twilight de Tocqueville envisioned.
Before society crashes under its own weight and you start dusting off that stockpile of MREs and ammo, do something too many Americans neglect to do: vote. The average turnout in federal elections is about half in presidential years and a third in off-years. Unless those figures change, nothing else will.
Check your elected officials' voting record. Support those who voted against the Farm Bill and send the rest packing. Chances are, if they approved something this wasteful, they can't be trusted with the $4.5 billion the government spends each day.
Politicians need to be reminded subsidies make people and industries weaker, not stronger. Remind them wealth redistribution not only violates the natural order of things, but is poor long-term public policy – regardless if the beneficiary is Jeb's balance sheet or Shelia's EBT card.
Let them know that if a center-left government such as New Zealand can successfully end agricultural subsidies (which it did more than two decades ago), then surely a robust center-right nation like ours can, too.
Let them know that more reasonable welfare requirements, such as the reforms congressional Republicans enacted during the Clinton Administration, can bring enrollment figures down to more historic, natural – and sustainable – levels.
Make sure your elected officials know you have nothing against Jeb and Sheila, personally. You just want the first wallet they reach for to be their own.