With the next generation of Americans on the hook for a national debt that is soaring past $21 trillion, millennials should be asking tough questions about how their money is being spent and for what purpose. One area of the budget that doesn’t receive the scrutiny it deserves is federal grants.
As the name implies, grants are money agencies send out to recipients that may be states, universities, nonprofit groups or other entities. Grants are not technically earmarks, which Congress placed a moratorium on in 2010, because earmarks involve one politician selecting or “earmarking” funds for one project. Still, grants often are, in essence, pork barrel spending that serves a parochial or political interest.
As OpenTheBooks.com found in their recent “Where’s the Pork?” report, the federal government awarded 560,771 grants, totaling $583 billion in fiscal year 2016. That’s serious money. To put this in perspective, that’s 15 percent of total federal spending and an amount that exceeds the Gross Domestic Products of developed countries like Taiwan ($579 billion GDP), Sweden ($539 billion GDP) and Israel ($350 billion GDP).
Key findings from the report:
- Fortune 100 companies received $3.2 billion in federal grants between fiscal years 2014 and 2016. The top recipients included Boeing ($773.7 million), General Motors ($453.7 million) and Lockheed Martin Corporation ($277.2 million).
- More than 3,000 for-profit institutions received $2.5 billion in grants. Southern Company Services, Inc., whose revenues totaled $23 billion in fiscal year 2016, received $162.5 million in federal grants.
- Higher education institutions, according to the data, received 6 percent of federal grant funding, totaling $35.1 billion. Columbia University received the most funding ($816.3 million), followed by Johns Hopkins University ($768.1 million), and the University of Washington ($679.1 million). The top 25 grant-receiving universities included five Ivy League schools despite having $120 billion in collective endowment funds.
Several of the specific projects funded raised eyebrows. Consider just a few examples:
- New Condom Design with More Lubrication – $200,601 in taxpayer money funded a new condom design that lowers the chance of breakage and increases “satisfaction between partners.”
- Cigar Taste Test – $114,375 funded a study to determine whether cigar flavor affected its addictiveness.
- Sex Ed for Prostitutes in California – $1.5 million funded “safer sex and needle” education for prostitutes in California even though prostitution is illegal in the state.
- Space Racers: An Animated Children’s Cartoon – $2.5 million in NASA funding supported the production of two seasons of a children’s cartoon series about galactic adventures.
- Virtual Reality Platform to Teach Children in China How to Cross the Street – $183,750 from the Department of Health and Human Services funded a virtual reality platform in China to teach safe pedestrian techniques.
While recipients obviously welcome grants, that money often comes back at a loss to taxpayers. Reform begins with challenging assumptions about what makes an effective member of Congress. The effective member isn’t one who sends money back to local communities; it’s one who prevents money from leaving local communities in the first place. Block granting money to states or, again, not taking it at all can be a more effective way to help people and build sustainable endeavors that don’t rise or fall with federal grants.