Death, Taxes, and Food

April 14, 2014 | 11:12 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

The taxman cometh. At my house, the 1040 is signed and the check is written, joining millions of others in the mail this week. Recently, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that improvement in the U.S. economy is leading to rising revenues from federal taxes. But just what are our tax dollars buying?

IRS 1040_flickr PT Money

CC image courtesy of PT Money/flickr

In the realm of food, agriculture, and health, the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars amounts to a huge boondoggle that should outrage all Americans.

Paying once—junk food subsidies

First, there are the farm subsidies. According to the Environmental Working Group’s extensive farm subsidy database, taxpayers shelled out nearly $300 billion between 1995 and 2012 in subsidies for U.S. agriculture. Much of this was aimed at a few commodity crops that become ingredients for processed foods, junk foods, livestock feed (for meat production), and biofuels.

  • Direct subsidies for corn alone totaled more than $84 billion over that 17 year period.
  • Another $35 billion was paid out for wheat, and nearly $28 billion for soybeans.
  • Over the same time period, the USDA spent more than $53 billion to subsidize crop insurance. Again, these subsidies have tilted toward corn and other commodity crops.

Of all this government largesse, very little was directed toward fruits and vegetables, even though these are among the valuable foods for our health and well-being. As our friends at Taxpayers for Common Sense put it, it’s a situation of farm subsidy “haves” and “have-nots”.

Paying twice—cardiovascular diseases

Not surprisingly, the typical U.S. diet mirrors the farm subsidy picture. Americans eat more meat and refined grains than nutrition experts recommend, and not enough fruits and vegetables. And the results are decidedly unhealthy.

While there’s uncertainty about exact rates and trends (as my colleague Michael Halpern noted last week in his post on childhood obesity) it’s clear that diet-related illnesses are taking a heavy toll on our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 70% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Almost a third suffer from high blood pressure.

And all this preventable ill health has fiscal consequences. Just look at the check taxpayers and families will write this year solely for treatment of cardiovascular diseases—a set of diet-related diseases that is the #1 killer of Americans:


There’s a better way

We are getting the food system—and the health outcomes—that we pay for. But we could pay for something different by shifting farm subsidies from the agribusiness haves to the disease-fighting (and health cost-busting) fruit and veggie have-nots.

In order to get there, we’re going to need a much bigger movement. Fortunately, health-focused, deficit-cutting farm policies should appeal to a broad swath of the public. In recent years, polls have shown that an average of 48% of Americans identify themselves as conservative when it comes to fiscal matters. Click on the image above to share it with a friend, colleague, or family member who meets that description.

And happy Tax Day!