Public support for current trade policy modest and declining
Majority opposes subsidies to agribusiness, favors them for small farmers

January 22, 2004, PROGRAM on INTERNATIONAL POLICY ATTITUDES: A new PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll finds that the majority of the American public is critical of US trade policy and wants the government to make greater efforts to mitigate the effects of trade on workers at home and abroad, and on the environment. The poll also revealed that Americans would be willing to make sacrifices, such as forfeiting some farm subsidies, if it would improve the country's trade positions.

Presented three options, only 20% said "I support the growth of international trade in principle and I approve of the way the US is going about expanding international trade," while 53% said "I support the growth of international trade in principle, but I am not satisfied with the way the US government is dealing with the effects of trade on American jobs, the poor in other countries and the environment." Eighteen percent opposed the growth of trade.

Overall, the Bush administration's handling of trade is a modest net negative for the president's reelection prospects. Only 21% said that the president's handling of international trade issues would increase the likelihood they would vote for him, while 37% said it decreased the likelihood.

A major stumbling block in trade negotiations has been farm subsidies, with developing countries refusing to open their markets any further as long as the US and other developing countries continue to give their farmers the advantage of subsidies and the US getting particular heat because of its recent $125 billion bill increasing farm subsidies. Steven Kull comments, “While the public would oppose eliminating all farm subsidies, the scope of subsidies the public supports is so much narrower than is currently provided that, if the public’s preferences were followed, this would largely remove the current obstacle in trade negotiations.”

While 77% 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 US subsidies go to large farming businesses and while most of them get subsidies, this is true of only a minority of small farmers (Source: USDA).

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

Steven Kull comments, “Clearly, US policy on farm subsidies is far out of step with the preferences of the American public. The vast majority of US subsidies go to large farming businesses on a regular annual basis, while only 1 in 10 Americans approves of this.”

A striking finding is that the public in farm states was not significantly different in their attitudes about farm subsidies. The poll included an oversample of the 17 states that receive the largest amounts of farm subsidies, excluding the metropolitan areas of California, Illinois and Texas. In these states 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%.

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