Illustration by Ted McGrath
Illustration by Ted McGrath

It's bad enough that the U.S. government showers billions of dollars a year in subsidies and handouts on the nation's farmers, a group that as a whole is much better off than most Americans. Now the Government Accountability Office says in a new report that many of the recipients of that federal largess aren't even alive.

The agency determined that thousands of dead farmers have received as much as $36 million in payments for crop insurance, disaster aid and conservation programs. The report doesn’t say how dead farmers received the checks or who went to the banks to cash them -- but never mind, since that wasn't the GAO's assignment.

The top offender within the Agriculture Department was the Risk Management Agency, which runs the federal crop insurance program. Between 2008 and 2012 it handed out $22 million to about 3,400 farmers who the GAO believes were dead -- although it's hard to say for certain. The GAO said the agency's record-keeping wasn't up to standards used by the government to prevent the three-headed hydra of waste, fraud and abuse, so it isn't really clear who got all that money.

Almost as bad was the department's Natural Resources Conversation Service, which handles voluntary programs to encourage farmers not to cultivate wetlands and other sensitive areas. It paid $10.6 million to farmers that are thought to be dead, though again that's a guess because the program doesn't do enough in the way of record-keeping.

One part of the agriculture subsidies program, the Farm Service Agency, which among other things oversees disaster-assistance programs, has paid about $3.3 million since 2007 to farmers who are no longer alive. Of that, the government managed to recover about $1 million.

The magnitude of incorrect payments by the Farm Service actually represents a huge improvement. Thank goodness too, because an earlier GAO report found that between 1999 and 2005 the agency shelled out $1.1 billion to more than 170,000 farmers who were no longer among the living. After it began checking benefit eligibility against the Social Security Administration's master death list, incorrect payments plunged.

Clearly, all the Agriculture Department's farm-welfare programs should follow the same procedure, and the GAO report says as much. The only question left is what's holding things up?

(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)