farm subsidies: a necessary evil?
Subsidies are payments, economic concessions, or privileges given by the
government to favor businesses or consumers. In the 1930s, subsidies were designed to
favor agriculture. John Steinbeck expressed his dislike of the farm subsidy system of
the United States in his book, The Grapes of Wrath. In that book, the government gave
money to farms so that they would grow and sell a certain amount of crops. As a result,
Steinbeck argued, many people starved unnecessarily. Steinbeck examined farm subsidies
from a personal level, showing how they hurt the common man. Subsidies have a variety
of other problems, both on the micro and macro level, that should not be ignored. Despite
their benefits, farm subsidies are an inefficient and dysfunctional part of our economic
system.
The problems of the American farmer arose in the 1920s, and various methods
were introduced to help solve them. The United States still disagrees on how to solve
the continuing problem of agricultural overproduction. In 1916, the number of people living
on farms was at its maximum at 32,530,000. Most of these farms were relatively small
(Reische 51). Technological advances in the 1920\'s brought a variety of effects. The
use of machinery increased productivity while reducing the need for as many farm laborers.
The industrial boom of the 1920s drew many workers off the farm and into the cities.
Machinery, while increasing productivity, was very expensive. Demand for food, though,
stayed relatively constant (Long 85). As a result of this, food prices went down. The
small farmer was no longer able to compete, lacking the capital to buy productive
machinery. Small farms lost their practicality, and many farmers were forced to
consolidate to compete. Fewer, larger farms resulted (Reische 51). During the
Depression, unemployment grew while income shrank. "An extended drought had
aggravated the farm problem during the 1930s (Reische 52)." Congress, to counter this,
passed price support legislation to assure a profit to the farmers. The Soil Conservation
and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 allowed the government to limit acreage use for
certain soil-depleting crops. The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 allowed
the government to set the minimum price and amount sold of a good at the market. The
Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, farmers were given price supports for not growing
crops. These allowed farmers to mechanize, which was necessary because of the scarcity
of farm labor during World War II (Reische 52). During World War II, demand for food
increased, and farmers enjoyed a period of general prosperity (Reische 52). In 1965, the
government reduced surplus by getting farmers to set aside land for soil conservation
(Blanpied 121). The Agricultural Act of 1970 gave direct payments to farmers to set
aside some of their land (Patterson 129). The 1973 farm bill lowered aid to farmers by
lowering the target income for price supports. The 1970s were good years for farmers.
Wheat and corn prices tripled, land prices doubled, and farm exports outstripped imports
by twenty-four billion dollars (Long 88). Under the Carter administration, farm support
was minimized. Competition from foreign markets, like Argentina, lowered prices and
incomes (Long 88). Ronald Reagan wanted to wean the farm community from
government support. Later on in his administration, though, he started the Payments In
Kind policy, in which the government paid farmers not to grow major crops. Despite
these various efforts, farms continue to deal with the problems that rose in the 1920s.
Farm subsidies seem to have benefits for the small farmer. "Each year since
1947, there has been a net out-migration of farm people (Reische 53)." American farm
production has tripled since 1910 while employment has fallen eighty percent (Long 82).
Small family farms have the lowest total family incomes (Long 83). Farming is following
a trend from many small farms to a few large farms. Competition among farmers has
increased supply faster than demand. New seed varieties, better pest control, productive
machinery, public investments in irrigation and transportation, and better management
will increase farm output. The resulting oversupply of farm products, which creates a low
profit margin, drives smaller farms out of business. Smaller farms lack the capital and
income to buy the machinery they need to compete with larger farms (Long 85). Many
see this tendency towards consolidation