There have been reports that the Control Yuan on Aug. 20 again censured the Ministry of the Interior and the Council of Agriculture over the issue of farmers fraudulently receiving welfare subsidies. The issue has drawn a lot of public attention, and observers are pessimistic that the complex problem of people falsely identifying themselves as farmers will be resolved.
Farmers work hard their entire lives, so the government launched the Old-Age Farmers’ Welfare Allowance Program (老農津貼) to assist them in retirement. The intent behind the program is good. Unfortunately, as a result of electoral considerations as well as concerns about farmers’ associations, the regulations on applying for the allowance are loose and applicants are not closely scrutinized. The authorities often approve applications simply to keep a good public image, so it is easy to take advantage of the program.
Since the monthly allowance has increased to NT$7,000 (US$230) per person, the incentive to falsely file an application has also increased, resulting in a large number of sham farmers. Although Taiwan’s agricultural population stands at 544,000, 675,000 people receive the allowance, not to mention the 1.5 million people under the Farmer Health Insurance Program. The NT$56.36 billion that is being paid out each year is seriously hurting the budgets of related agencies and is unjust.
Many farmers also receive government subsidies for fallow land, thus wasting not only social welfare funds, but also farmland. Some farmers even apply for low-interest rate government loans available exclusively for farmers. These problems may undermine the foundation of the agricultural sector if the government does not carry out far-reaching reform.
The problem is the loose process for obtaining farmer status and the lack of review after this status is granted. To resolve the issue, the agencies in charge should immediately apply strict rules to qualify for an allowance, such as increasing the required number of years of insurance payments.
Meanwhile, local governments should carry out regular on-site inspections to check whether the recipients really are farmers, and then submit the inspection reports to the central government, which should carry out random checks. These measures should reduce the number of sham farmers and discourage large lots of farmland being divided into small, fallow “farmer insurance plots” of 0.1 hectares.
If a farmer’s status can be clearly established, the government would be able to eliminate fraud and fulfill its good intentions for retired farmers.
The problem with sham farmers highlights the government agencies’ failure to accurately grasp fundamental data regarding agricultural productivity. Although Taiwan sees itself as an advanced agricultural country, it has failed to properly interpret its data. As a consequence, some people are ready to take advantage of the various subsidies: for fishing boat fuel, fallow farmland, import protection, natural disaster insurance as well as government buyouts.
When the government pushes for planned production or faces an imbalance between supply and demand, the lack of accurate information means that it is unable to make correct assessments and offer complementary measures. The warnings have been loud and clear, but the government has not responded. Building a comprehensive database for agricultural production and sales is an urgent task for national agricultural policymakers.
As the public pays attention to the issue of the subsidies for elderly farmers, attention should also be given to their care. What they want most of all is a safe environment in which they can enjoy their old age. The government should therefore review and adjust current agricultural policies in accordance with international norms, spending less on personal subsidies and more on the improvement of farming villages. Elderly farmers could then have higher leisure, social, medical care and living standards, and they would be able to live with dignity.
In order for them to enjoy happy lives together with their families, the government should create job opportunities in rural areas and improve the production environment and techniques to attract farmers’ families back to rural areas where they can inherit their parents’ farmland and continue tilling the land. This could also help resolve the labor shortage in rural areas.
Although the government offers many subsidies to farmers, their livelihood mostly depends on non-agricultural income. The cruel reality shows the shortcomings of the current agricultural production system, as subsidies are hardly beneficial to narrowing the income gap between farmers and the rest of the nation’s population. Sustainable development of the agricultural industry requires concrete reform measures instead of spending taxpayers’ money on subsidies that only temporarily relieve the anger among farmers.
As the father of modern management Peter Drucker wrote in 1998, “Big businesses, in particular, seem able to coast a long time on the courage, work, and vision of earlier executives before they erode and run down... But the future always does come, sooner or later. And it is always different. Even the mightiest company will be in trouble if it does not work toward the future.”
The same view can be applied to the agricultural industry. Are Taiwanese officials considering the future of farmers as they are busy opening up the agriculture market to international trade organizations?
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Eddy Chang