Fact Check

Joni Ernst Received $460,000 in Welfare Money?

Rumor: Iowa Republican Joni Ernst received $460,000 in welfare money.

Published Jan 22, 2015

Claim:   Iowa Republican Joni Ernst received $460,000 in welfare money.


TRUE:  Various relatives of Joni Ernst reportedly received an aggregate of $460,000 in agricultural subsidies.
FALSE:   Joni Ernst has received $460,000 in welfare payments.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2015]

Did Joni Ernst really receive 460,000.00 on welfare?


Origins:   On 20 January 2015, Iowa Republican Joni

Ernst delivered the official GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address. In that response Ernst touched on a number of Republican positions, and in the course of her remarks she spoke at length about her modest upbringing on a farm in Iowa. (Sen. Ernst also repeated an anecdote she had previously shared on election night in November 2014 involving the use of bread bags to protect her only pair of good shoes.)

Sen. Ernst's response was well received by the conservative base, but some political opponents lampooned her claims (as well as her "bread bags" story). A rumor began to circulate that Ernst herself, despite her dim view of government assistance, had been the recipient of nearly half a million dollars in government aid.

The rumor that spread after Ernst's SOTU response dated back to a post on the District Sentinel (self-described as "launched in 2014 to cover Washington from a leftist perspective") web site that detailed subsidies purportedly received by Ernst or her relatives. The post (which gained notoriety after the SOTU response) claimed that, when tallied, Ernst's family had received nearly half a million dollars in aid from the government:

The truth about her family's farm roots and living within one's means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (nee: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst's father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government — with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard's brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies. And the brother' late grandfather Harold Culver received $57,479 from Washington — again, mostly corn subsidies — between 1995 and 2001. He passed away in January 2003.

The site's claims were picked up by a few larger outlets in light of the senator's remarks about self-sufficiency and were soon transformed into the rumor that Sen. Ernst herself had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in welfare. However, the figure in question ($460,000) is an aggregate value of agricultural subsidies granted to various relatives of Ernst (i.e., her father, brother, and great-grandfather) across a span of twenty years, not money Ernst herself received in the form of welfare payments. While agricultural subsidies and public assistance are separately controversial issues for a multitude of reasons, conflating the two is quite misleading.

Agricultural subsidy programs and public welfare programs operate in vastly different ways; and regardless of how one feels about the issue of federal farm subsidies, their intent differs greatly from the intent of common forms of public assistance such as food stamps or housing assistance.

The rumor about Ernst and welfare is overreaching for a number of reasons. In addition to the meaningful difference between a farm subsidy and what might be recognized as welfare, there is also a conflation of numbers. Ernst's father (and, it should be noted, not the senator herself) is listed as a recipient of less than ten percent of the $460,000 figure mentioned in the rumor. The balance is attributed to her late great-grandfather and her uncle, Dallas Culver. Sen. Ernst may or may not be close to her uncle, but it's quite a stretch to suggest his agricultural subsidies benefited her in any meaningful way.

Even then, there's an issue of chronology that cannot be overlooked. Those who cling to the proposition that Ernst was happy to put her hand out when subsidies came her way while looking down upon others' receiving help would have to acknowledge the dollar figures reviewed for the claim come from farm subsidies granted between the years 1995 and 2009. Ernst was born in 1970; and by 1994 she had graduated college, been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Engineer Corps, gotten married, and moved to Savannah, Georgia. It's safe to say she was no longer a member of her parents' household in 1995 or later and thus was not a direct beneficiary of the referenced federal farm subsidy programs.

Moreover, Ernst's father received only about $39,000 in farm subsidies across 14 years, or $2,785 per year on the average: a sum of money that would be useful to most Americans, but not enough to make or break a business in one year. More than 90% of the monies cited in the claim went not to any of Ernst's direct relatives, but to an uncle.

Last updated:   22 January 2015

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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