When a poor person gets a government handout, it's called welfare. When a rich corporation gets one, it's called an economic development incentive.
With local, state and federal government budgets tighter than ever, social programs are getting a hard look. But what about corporate welfare?
The New York Times started a good conversation last week with a three-part investigative series called the United States of Subsidies. Reporter Louise Story spent 10 months analyzing corporate tax breaks, gifts and other incentives in all 50 states, which she figured add up to at least $80 billion in annual taxpayer subsidies to business.
Business subsidies have mushroomed since the 1980s, when automakers started pitting states against one another to host new assembly plants. The strategy worked so well that other industries demanded freebies, too.
A big reason corporate welfare has flourished is that politicians love being able to announce lots of new jobs coming to their area. (They often are out of office when those jobs never materialize or leave for another state offering better incentives.)
From a national perspective, it is a zero-sum game. State and local incentives do little or nothing to grow the national economy; they just determine where in the nation the growth will occur.
But it's more insidious than that. Incentives redirect billions of tax dollars to corporate bottom lines instead of to improving education, health, safety, infrastructure and making other public investments that will create genuine, long-term economic development.
The Times website (Nytimes.com) has state-by-state breakdowns of incentives and a searchable database of recipients. It shows that the nation's biggest business incentive Santa is high-growth, low-wage, high-poverty Texas, at $19 billion a year.
West Virginia and Oklahoma give up incentives equal to one-third of their budgets.
The Times calculates Kentucky's annual incentives at $1.41 billion — about 15 percent of the state budget, or $324 per Kentuckian. Those include $264 million in personal income tax credits; $108 million in sales tax refunds, exemptions and discounts; and $69.2 million in corporate income tax reductions, credits or rebates.
The Times reports that most Kentucky incentives, $569 million worth, go to mining, oil and gas industries — no surprise there, given their political clout. That is followed by $341 million for agriculture and $180 million to manufacturers.
As is true nationally, some of the biggest Kentucky incentive recipients in recent years were automakers: $307 million for Ford; $83.8 million for Toyota and $10 million for General Motors. Given their high wages and large supplier networks, those might be good investments.
But the big head-scratcher in the Times' database was $94.1 million in incentives to Tyson Foods from 1995-2009 for a low-wage chicken-processing plant in Henderson County. Is that the kind of economic development Kentucky taxpayers should be subsidizing?
While the Times' report is impressive in its national scope, there has long been debate about the value of incentives. The Herald-Leader published an investigative series in 2005 that questioned the value of many Kentucky tax breaks and other giveaways. The report resulted in some improved accountability, but did little to stem the flow of tax money into corporate pockets.
A state-commissioned study issued this summer came up with incentive figures smaller than the Times reported, but still pretty staggering: $1.29 billion between 2001 and 2010. The report said 577 companies took incentives to locate 55,173 jobs in Kentucky at a cost to taxpayers of $23,385 per job.
The incentive system favors large corporations over small businesses — often the employers who are already in a community and aren't looking to leave. Officials have responded by coming up with some incentives for them, too, which just further drains government coffers.
How do we stop this racket, where cities and states compete to steal jobs from one another? It would be great if Congress could pass a law, but it probably can't. Still, with about 20 percent of state and local government budgets coming from federal dollars, somebody needs to be looking out for the national interest.
Taxpayers should demand reform of these corporate welfare systems, just as they did social welfare systems in the 1990s. But it won't be easy. Corporations employ more lobbyists and make more campaign donations than poor people do.
Reach Tom Eblen: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com