Do American Farmers Need New Handouts?

think of farmers, they imagine a salt-of-the-earth family barely warding off foreclosure. In reality farmers are wealthier and more likely to be Republican than the image would suggest--and they keep a close eye on Washington. Every five years Congress renews the farm bill, setting subsidy levels for the half decade to come. This time, the timing couldn't be worse: agriculture, the country's biggest industry, has largely recovered from the recession and credit crunch of the early 1980s. With the federal deficit growing, is this any time for a thriving group to demand a $10 billion-a-year handout?

While many experts agree that farming should move toward a market-oriented economy, they caution against pulling the subsidy plug. Neil Harl, an Iowa State University agricultural economist, says the industry isn't as healthy as it looks; eliminating the program, others say, wuld sink the farm economy into another crisis. Subsidies are also needed to assure a steady food supply. Harl notes that during the 1988 drought, the country drew on surplus grain supplies built up because oof earlier payments to farmers.

Still, this year's $55 billion bill faces a tough fight. Among the targets: farmers with incomes over $100,000, peanut subsidies and sugar supports. A growing number of farmers would like to see subsidies end--provided foreign governments stop supporting their farmers, too. On a level playing field, they think they could capture a bigger share of the world market--and make more money than they do on the dole.