More than 100 people who live in Madison cashed hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidy checks from the federal government last year.
The checks were sent straight to their urban homes — some of them fancy places on the lake, in Maple Bluff and Shorewood Hills — regardless of need, high prices for crops or whether the recipients are even farmers.
It's a system ripe for savings as Congress and its "supercommittee" try to stem the federal government's chronic budget deficit and soaring debt.
Nobody receiving a check is doing anything illegal. And who can blame people who own land for taking advantage of generous government incentives to plant — or not plant — crops.
But we can all blame our leaders in Congress for allowing such waste to continue.
A Monona man who farms thousands of acres in three Wisconsin counties received $32,000 in subsidies last year and more than $1 million since 1995, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that tracks subsidies. That same Monona man lives in a $1.1 million home on the lake, begging the question of need.
Yet at least he's a farmer.
The owner of a Shorewood Hills home valued at $1.1 million received several hundred dollars in farm subsidies last year. So did a retired UW-Madison physics professor and a former high-ranking local government bureaucrat, according to EWG data and State Journal research.
You can view an interactive map showing the size of every farm subsidy check and the name of its recipient in Madison, Monona and Fitchburg last year by clicking http://host.madison.com/wsj/farm-subsidies-to-city-dwellers/html_2b248c18-122b-11e1-8476-001cc4c03286.html"> here. The map doesn't include many more people in Madison who indirectly received farm subsidies through businesses they own a stake in.
Elsewhere, celebrities such as rocker Bruce Springsteen, media mogul Ted Turner and former NBA star Scottie Pippin have received farm subsidies, according to a report released last week by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Yes, a safety net for farmers hit by hard times is justified. That's what price support payments are for. And some subsidies encourage conservation.
But most of the farm payments going to city dwellers in Madison last year were part of the $5 billion in "direct payments" nationally that go to land owners regardless of need, occupation or high commodity prices, said Chris Campbell, an EWG analyst.
"Direct payments are just a handout," he said. "There's no public benefit," and they make it harder for young people to get into farming by inflating land prices.
Congress should eliminate the $5 billion in annual direct payments, apply the savings to the deficit and reject calls for yet another subsidy program in its place.