The shocking numbers behind corporate welfare

by David Cay Johnston @DavidCayJ February 25, 2014
Boeing and its stockholders fly high on tax dollars

State and local governments have awarded at least $110 billion in taxpayer subsidies to business, with 3 of every 4 dollars going to fewer than 1,000 big corporations, the most thorough analysis to date of corporate welfare revealed today.

Boeing ranks first, with 137 subsidies totaling $13.2 billion, followed by Alcoa at $5.6 billion, Intel at $3.9 billion, General Motors at $3.5 billion and Ford Motor at $2.5 billion, the new report by the nonprofit research organization Good Jobs First shows.

Dow Chemical had the most subsidies, 410 totaling $1.4 billion, followed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway holding company, with 310 valued at $1.1 billion.

The figures were compiled from disclosures made by state and local government agencies that subsidize companies in all sorts of ways, including cash giveaways, building and land transfers, tax abatements and steep discounts on electric and water bills.

In fact, the numbers significantly understate the true value of taxpayer subsidies to businesses, for reasons explained below.

A fight for transparency

On a shoestring budget — roughly $1 million a year — Good Jobs First has for years dug through disclosure statements in all 50 states to compile reports on subsidies. Many of these subsidies exist despite strong provisions in many state constitutions prohibiting corporate welfare. New York state, for example, gets around this because its highest court ruled in 2011 that while the state may not give gifts directly, it can create an agency and let it give the gifts.

Good Jobs First does not oppose all subsidies. Rather, it favors transparency in the hope, executive director Greg LeRoy said, that any subsidies will be used wisely to expand the economy and not just prop up inefficient enterprises.

The data on welfare paid to companies come from Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker 2.0, an improved Web tool that examines subsidies by linking subsidiaries to parent companies. The older version of the tool obscured the benefits to brand name corporate parents such as Apple, Google, Toyota and Walt Disney.

The size and range of the subsidies the tool has uncovered helps explain the burdens taxpayers must bear because so many major corporations rely on welfare for much or all of their profits rather than earning them.

Such burdens are especially hard on the poor. The bottom fifth of households in all but one state pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than the top 1 percent of earners. This means that corporate welfare effectively redistributes from the poor to those rich enough to own corporate stock.

Many forms of subsidies to business are excluded from Subsidy Tracker 2.0. For example, Good Jobs First does not count federal subsidies. It also leaves out indirect subsidies like perpetual monopoly rights of way for pipelines as well as rules that limit competition in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and a host of other industries.

Phil Mattera, the organization’s research director, starts with publicly announced subsidies. With his small staff, he then gathers whatever records state and local governments make public or disclose through various Freedom of Information Act–type laws.

We know far too little about taxpayer support for business because of the ways governments do and do not collect data.

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