Corporate Subsidies and Economic Inequality

December 16th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

inequality_graphicThe intensification of economic inequality, one of the defining issues of our times, has many causes, ranging from the weakening of labor unions to the decimation of inheritance taxes. In Tax Breaks and Inequality, a report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just published, we argue that another factor belongs on the list: subsidies given by state and local governments to large corporations in the name of economic development.

This conclusion is based on a mash-up of data from our Subsidy Tracker with two groups of corporations: firms linked to members of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans and a list we created of large low-road employers.

The first part of the report is in effect a rebuttal to Forbes, which in this year’s edition of the 400 plays up those individuals who supposedly built fortunes entirely on their own (rather than through inheritance). We show that many of many of the super-rich – both those Forbes calls “bootstrappers” and those labeled “silver spooners” – received help of another kind: government assistance to the corporations through which they got filthy rich.

Development subsidies – in the form of business property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales tax exemptions, training grants, infrastructure improvements and the like – are supposed to promote job creation and broad-based economic growth. Yet they are often awarded to profitable, growing companies that do not need tax breaks to finance a project, meaning that the subsidies serve mainly to increase profits. When these companies are owned in whole or substantial part by wealthy individuals or families, especially the billionaires in the 400, the subsidies are serving to enlarge those private fortunes — directly in privately held firms or through stock price appreciation and dividends in publicly traded ones.

We find that more than one-third of the 258 companies currently linked to members of the Forbes list are substantial recipients of subsidies. Ninety-nine of them have received awards totaling $1 million or more. The combined value of those awards is $19.4 billion, or an average of $196 million per company.

Five of the 99 firms have been awarded more than $1 billion in subsidies, including Intel ($5.9 billion), Nike ($2 billion), Cerner ($1.7 billion), Tesla Motors ($1.3 billion) and Berkshire Hathaway ($1.2 billion).

About one-third of the individuals on the Forbes 400 are linked to one or more of the 99 highly subsidized companies, including every one of the 11 wealthiest individuals and all but two of the top 25. These include Bill Gates, whose $81 billion fortune comes mainly from his holdings in Microsoft, which has been awarded $203 million in subsidies; Warren Buffett, whose $67 billion net worth derives from Berkshire Hathaway, which has been awarded $1.2 billion in subsidies; Larry Ellison, whose $50 billion net worth comes from Oracle, which has been awarded $18 million in subsidies; the Koch Brothers, each worth $42 billion from Koch Industries, whose subsidies total $154 million; and four members of the Walton Family, each worth more than $35 billion from Wal-Mart Stores, which has been awarded more than $161 million in subsidies.

The second part of the report looks at subsidies awarded to corporations notorious for stingy pay rates and other low-road employment practices. We identify 87 such companies that have each been awarded more than $1 million in state and local subsidies, for a total of $3.3 billion. Retailers dominate the list, with 60 firms awarded more than $2.6 billion in subsidies. Twelve firms in the hospitality sector (restaurants, hotels and foodservice companies) account for more than $245 million in subsidies. The low-wage companies with the most in subsidies are: Sears ($536 million), Amazon.com ($419 million), Cabela’s ($247 million), Convergys ($202 million), Starwood Hotels & Resorts ($166 million) and Wal-Mart Stores ($161 million).

Eight companies are both linked to members of the Forbes 400 and pay low wages. Listed in order of their subsidy totals, they are: Sears, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Bass Pro, Meijer, Menard, and Allegis Group. These are all retailers except for the staffing services company Allegis.

Subsidies are not the primary source of the Forbes 400’s wealth, but they contribute to it in a way that makes things more difficult for working families. When large corporations controlled by billionaires are given lavish taxpayer subsidies, the rest of society — especially working families — gets stuck with a larger share of the cost of essential public services. And when those subsidies go to low-road employers, they are promoting the substandard jobs that keep so many people at the bottom of the income spectrum.

By enriching those at the top and helping to impoverish those at the bottom, subsidies are part of the inequality problem rather than part of the solution.

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