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What Americans Think About Farm Subsidies

How popular are farm subsidies in the United States — and what are the global implications?

March 3, 2004

How popular are farm subsidies in the United States — and what are the global implications?

The good news for the U.S. farm lobby from a recent study by The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) is that the U.S. public would oppose eliminating all farm subsidies.

The bad news for that lobby, however, is that the scope of subsidies Americans support is much narrower than is currently provided.

The good news for developing countries and those who want to unblock trade negotiations is that if U.S. public preferences were being followed, it would largely remove the current obstacle in trade negotiations.

One key issue it turns out is whothe ultimate recipient of subsidies is. While 77% of respondents supported providing subsidies to small farms (under 500 acres), only 31% supported providing them to large farming businesses (over 500 acres).

In fact, approximately 80% of U.S. subsidies go to large farming businesses.

Also, most Americans do not support the current policy of providing subsidies on a regular annual basis — rather than only in bad years. Only 34% favored giving even small farmers regular annual subsidies — and just 9% favored giving them to large farming businesses.

Equally Unpopular
Do you favor or oppose the U.S. government giving subsidies to large farming businesses?
FAVOR   General Public
    Farm States
OPPOSE   General Public
    Farm States
Source: PIPA/KN 1/2004

Clearly, U.S. policy on farm subsidies is far out of step with the preferences of the U.S. public. The vast majority of U.S. subsidies go to large farming businesses on a regular annual basis. But only 1 in 10 Americans approves of this practice.

Another striking finding is that the public in U.S. farm states was not significantly different in their attitudes about farm subsidies.

In the 17 U.S. states that receive the largest amounts of farm subsidies, support for subsidies to small farmers was 81% — while just 31% favored subsidies to large farming businesses.

Support for regular annual subsidies to small farmers was 35% — while support for regular annual subsidies to large farming businesses was just 9%. Those numbers are almost identical to those across the United States.

And while support for farm subsidies is fairly strong in principle, this appears to be derived from support for subsidies to small farmers — as it does not translate into support for subsidies to agribusiness.

Subsidies for tobacco farming especially are quite unpopular. Only 23% of Americans supported them (27% in farm states) — and 73% were opposed (65% in farm states).

While Americans are aware that more subsidies go to large farming businesses than small ones, the discrepancy is actually greater than they assume — and far greater than they think it should be.

Their estimate was that 42% of subsidies go to small farmers, when in fact only 20% does.

Respondents said that an average of 64% should go to small farmers. Here again, there was no significant difference in farm states.

Many Americans are also unaware that farm subsidies are provided on a regular annual basis. A full 46% expressed the incorrect belief that farmers receive subsidies "only for bad years.

Some 50% had the correct view that farmers receive subsidies "on a regular annual basis, whether or not it's a bad year." Respondents in farm states were no more accurate.

When told that "the U.S. government also provides subsidies to agricultural businesses that do not farm, but provide farmers with equipment and services," only 36% approved of this practice — and only 31% of those in farm states approved.

Most Americans appear to be unaware of the objections to farm subsidies based on their impact on developing countries. Only 27% concurred with the view — generally held by experts — that U.S. farm subsidies "contribute to poverty in poor countries."

Despite the low U.S. awareness of the problems subsidies cause internationally, there is good news for developing countries in the poll's findings.

What hurts developing country farmers the most are the huge subsidies going to large U.S. agricultural conglomerates.

Therefore, the fact that support for that kind of subsidies is at very low levels in the United States should raise hopes for cutbacks in those subsidies.

As noted, if U.S. farm subsidies were limited to small farmers in bad years — as the majority of Americans clearly prefers — U.S. subsidies overall would be so small that they would an insignificant effect on farmers in developing countries.

Of course, such subsidy cutbacks in the United States should also be mirrored in the European Union and Japan — but they would be a very promising first step.

The Study
The PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll was conducted with a nationwide sample of 1,896 respondents from December 19, 2003 to January 5, 2004.

The poll was fielded by Knowledge Networks using its nationwide panel, which is randomly selected from the entire adult population and subsequently provided internet access.

For more information about this methodology, go to For more details on the study go to