New Pew database tracks government subsidies


The Pew Charitable Trust has launched a new effort and website which "aims to raise public awareness about the role of federal subsidies in the economy. Subsidyscope should be useful to Westerners who want to know the details of where federal subsidies are distributed around our region. it has long been observed that - while Westerners generally extol the virtues of "rugged individualism" - they have been nevertheless both eager and effective at getting the federal government to subsidize the region's industries and governments.

I decided to use the database to see if the West as a region receives more federal subsidies than do other regions. Here's what I found.One of the first areas which Subsidyscope investigated is subsidies to airports which rate as low priorities according to the  National Priority Ratings system (NPR). According to the Federal Aviation Administration "NPR is a numerical model that is one of several tools FAA uses to prioritize airport development projects."

The Pew database “includes information on enplanements —the number of paying passengers who board scheduled airlines or charter planes—to give users a sense of the level of commercial activity at a particular airport.” It “also includes data on operations—takeoffs and landings of air carrier, air taxi, general aviation and military aircraft—when such numbers are available.”

What I found is that of the 20 airport receiving the most dollars per enplanement during the 2005 through 2008 federal fiscal years eleven of the projects are in the West, seven are in the South and two are in Minnesota. For this purpose Texas and Oklahoma are not considered part of the West; there were no Texas projects in the top 20 but there was an Oklahoma project. You can check out the 20 projects and other related information on the Subsidyscope website.

It is clear that too many airport subsidies are going to airports which do not serve many everyday citizens, i.e. those who do not own a private plane. Most of the traffic at many of the subsidized low enplanement airports are private planes piloted by wealthy Westerners who want to commute from rural locations to western cities.

Pew seems to be arguing that this money would be better spent on airports that serve more people. In the West we have lots of rural land but we are also the most urbanized region in the nation. In accordance with my Western populist tendencies, I’d argue that the rich private aircraft owners should have to pay their own way….or at least that urban Westerners should get a fair share of the airport subsidies.

Did you notice the two projects in Minnesota? I decided to check the Congressional Directory at to determine if Minnesota has powerful senators or representatives on the committees which oversee the FFA.

Low and behold, I found that Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, chairs the House Transportation and Infrastucture Committee and that Democrat Tim Walz is a member of that committee.  I suspect that one of the criteria the FAA uses to select airport subsidy projects is the political power wielded by members of Congress with jurisdiction over FFA activities.

No surprises there; I can't wait until Pew takes a look at water subsidies!

I’d like to invite HCN reporters, bloggers and readers to use the Pew Subsidyscope database to investigate where illogical distribution of federal subsidies reflects political power rather than social priority. Maybe by shining light on these boondoggles we can cause our politicians to think twice before they deliver the pork. I think that is exactly what the Pew Trust is hoping will happen.