Rural Subsidies for Dams and Clams

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs an array of rural subsidy programs, which are aside from the farm subsidy programs that it also runs. USDA’s rural programs are grouped within three agencies: the Rural Housing Service (RHS), the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS). The agencies will spend $6.5 billion in 2016.

These subsidies are the focus of a new essay at

The USDA’s rural agencies have tentacles into a wide range of activities, as illustrated by the following projects funded in 2015:

  • $10 million to Exela Pharma Sciences in North Carolina.
  • $3.4 million for a sewer system in Geraldine, Alabama.
  • $8.5 million for a college expansion in Pocahontas, Arkansas.
  • $7,500 to an individual in Red Bluff, California, to fix his water well.
  • $200,000 to “one of the largest clam producers in Florida.”
  • $7.5 million to fix a dam in Idaho.
  • $1 million to an automotive shop and other businesses in Du Quoin, Illinois.
  • $63,000 to a biofuels company in Maine.
  • $200,000 for a farmers market in Michigan.
  • $651,000 for an arts center in Bozeman, Montana.
  • $373,000 to a paper company in Nevada.
  • $1.5 million to an apartment developer in Monticello, New York.
  • $2 million for a vet clinic in North Dakota.
  • $1.1 million for street improvements in Pittston, Pennsylvania.
  • $113,000 to fix up an old theatre in Rutland, Vermont.
  • $5.2 million for a fire station in Sweetwater County, Wyoming.

In the U.S. economy, these sorts of projects are usually funded by local governments and the private sector. So why should the USDA spend money on them? The assumption seems to be that the federal government has a magical source of cost-free funds. But all the money for federal aid programs ultimately comes from taxpayers who live in the 50 states. So the USDA’s aid programs are a zero-sum game for the nation as a whole.

Indeed, the programs are worse than zero-sum because taxpayers have to pay for the bureaucratic middlemen who run the programs. The USDA employs about 5,000 people to run its three rural agencies. The costs of wages, benefits, office space, travel, and supplies for these workers totaled $680 million in 2016. Thus about 10 percent of the $6.5 billion cost of USDA’s rural programs gets consumed by the federal bureaucracy.

Even if rural subsidy programs were administered efficiently, they represent an unfair redistribution of wealth. In many ways, rural Americans are better off than urban and suburban Americans. They enjoy cheaper housing, cleaner air, less congestion, and other advantages. So people who live in rural areas should not be a privileged class receiving special subsidies.

Rural subsidies should be ended, and the RHS, RUS, and RBS should be closed down.