Government & Politics

The Federal Government Pays Farmers. That Doesn’t Mean Farmers Are Fans.

Millions receive agricultural subsidies, but benefits don’t sway attitudes about government.

June 02, 2022

| by Rebecca Beyer
A man standing with his back to a dried-up cornfield is holding three ears of corn in his hands, and is wearing a t-shirt with an American flag and a baseball cap that shades his face. The sky is bright and blue behind him. Jim Young/Reuters

Commodities programs augment farmers’  incomes when crop prices fall. | Jim Young/Reuters

Billions of dollars in federal aid flow to millions of farmers in the United States each year in the form of various subsidies that many rely on as part of their income. Although the benefits make some programs popular, that positivity doesn’t seem to carry over to farmers’ attitudes toward the government as a whole.

It turns out that no matter how much money you get from the government, you won’t like the government any better if you didn’t like it to begin with.

That is the counter-intuitive conclusion of a new study by Stanford Graduate School of Business PhD candidate Jake Jares, political economy professor Neil Malhotra, and Sarah F. Anzia of UC Berkeley. The study pushes the boundaries of policy feedback research, a body of literature that tries to measure the effect public policies have on people’s political attitudes and participation.

“This is some of the most concrete evidence of the limits of policy feedback theory,” Jares says. “At most, these individuals seem to be made more positive toward individual policies, with caveats. But we can’t find any general spillover effects to policy preferences more broadly.”

The paper is unique for several reasons. First, most policy feedback research focuses on social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act, whose supporters tend to align with the Democratic party. This research is often limited by an inability to link people to the specific benefits they receive.

Jares, Malhotra, and Anzia didn’t have that problem. In their paper, they examine agricultural programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose beneficiaries tend to be white, live in rural areas, and vote Republican. And, thanks to a ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Washington Post nearly three decades ago, a record of every penny those people receive is available under the Freedom of Information Act, which the authors used to gather some of their data.

“In political science, you just don’t have this kind of good data on how individual people benefit from the government,” Jares explains. “Your Social Security check is not public; your IRS tax bill is not public.”

The authors examined traditional farm safety-net programs such as Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, which protect farmers against market downturns for certain commodities; the Conservation Reserve Program, which incentivizes farmers to protect water sources, soil, or natural habitats; and the Market Facilitation Program, created by President Donald Trump to compensate farmers affected by a trade war with China.

The researchers started with nearly 27 million payments made to approximately 2 million farmers and agricultural businesses between 2012 and 2019. They then selected recipients for whom they could validate payment data who were in the top half of both the commodity and conservation program payments (the median conservation payment was $6,250 and the median commodity payment was $4,753), creating a sample of just under 44,000 recipients. Of those, a little more than 1,000 responded to a survey of political attitudes, a response rate comparable to that yielded by other political surveys. Around 9% of respondents identified as liberal or extremely liberal while nearly 49% identified as conservative or extremely conservative.

The effect of the payments on people’s support for the programs providing the funds was different depending on the political nature of the program and political leanings of recipients.

You can’t take conservative libertarians and make them support the government by giving them money.
Jake Jares

For instance, beneficiaries of Trump’s Market Facilitation Program payments were more likely to support the program than non-recipients, but that bump in support came mostly from liberal and moderate farmers; conservatives supported the program whether they received payments or not. Among recipients of the long-standing commodity subsidies, higher benefit levels did not lead to an increase in support for the program, and conservatives were less likely to support the program than liberals or moderates. In fact, many respondents used the open-ended comment section on the survey to expound on their objections to certain aspects of the farm safety net. The Conservation Reserve Program, however, was well regarded by farmers across the political spectrum, and support for it increased with larger payments.

Across all three programs, bigger payments did not correspond with more positive views of the federal government in general, a finding that is consistent with prior research on social benefits and support for the government.

“You can’t take conservative libertarians and make them support the government by giving them money,” Jares says. “The upside is that people are not so vulnerable to politicians who are spraying money around everywhere. Ideology and values are still a powerful currency in the democratic discourse.”

Jares said one of the study’s surprising findings was that half of respondents said they would prefer to keep the payments at the same levels. Among the other half, those wanting benefits to go down outnumbered people wanting benefits to go up by two to one.

“Part of that could be cheap talk,” Jares says. “But I think it really does show that ideology in a lot of cases can trump self-interest.”

However, he adds, farmers had “articulate rationales” for their policy preferences. Some told him in follow-up conversations about the negative downstream effects of some of the policies. For instance, suppliers, knowing their customers will be receiving subsidy payments, often hike prices for necessities like fertilizer or equipment.

“They are deeply engaged with these policy issues,” Jares says.

Malhotra has studied agricultural aid previously. Last year, he published a paper on how payments affected people’s participation in the local Farm Service Agency committees that administer the programs. He found that receiving payments increased a farmer’s probability of voting in the committee’s elections by 20%, increased the probability of running for a seat by 34%, and increased the probability of winning a seat by 25%. While doing that research, he realized the potential for doing more with the data.

“It was great to get under the hood of one of the really big social services programs in the U.S., and, as we were doing that research, we wanted to know what these people think,” Malhotra says. “And, since the data has a mailing address for every single person, we decided we would just ask them.”

Jares began working on the project during his first year as a PhD candidate. Now in his fourth year, he says the topic “ended up being very apt.” Raised in Houston, he grew up going to his grandfather’s farm on the weekends; his uncle is still a part-time farmer.

“I think I’m the only student at the GSB who currently walks around campus in cowboy boots,” he says.

The research aligns with his own interest in “how ideology and economic disposition affect voters’ political preferences, and how those preferences turn into political behavior.”

Malhotra and Jares are taking their inquiries further, with a forthcoming paper that specifically explores how the Market Facilitation Program might have impacted the 2018 midterm elections.

“We want to know whether positive policy experiences with the incumbent party encourage you to turn out and support your party or negative experiences make you want to stay home,” Jares says. “It’s a salient idea as we head into the next midterms.”

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