When we set about on a full-scale effort to educate people on corporate welfare in Tennessee, we encountered the cold hard fact that a lot of people, even politically engaged people, did not know what corporate welfare actually is.

While they might have heard the terms ‘corporate welfare’ and ‘crony capitalism’ in passing, they didn’t really understand exactly what they meant. Furthermore, many people, especially conservatives, only knew the so-called benefits of corporate welfare programs, like tax incentives, and had not heard the other side of the argument.  They merely assume the press release argument that tax incentives create jobs, and that if you are against tax incentives for certain businesses then you are anti-business, period.

Ultimately, we had to show Tennesseans that while these incentive packages may create some (taxpayer-funded) jobs at big corporations in the state, they are anti-capitalist, and are giving an unfair advantage to big corporations at the expense of small businesses.  It was also our goal to show people that government money should not go to private business. While our group, The Beacon Center, is a big fan of tax cuts, we want tax cuts for all businesses, not just a select few corporations with political connections.

So how did we do it?

Exhibit A: The Pork Report. The Pork Report exposes instance of the worst waste, fraud and abuse by the federal government. By exposing some of the worst examples of this practice, it gave us a more open-minded audience for our message since they could see that even if they agreed with the concept of tax incentives in principle, that in reality it doesn’t work the way they expected.

Next, we brought attention to the issue of corporate welfare through a website we created, endcorporatehandouts.com. The website is used as a transparency tool that allows taxpayers to see exactly how their money is being spent on corporations. The reader is able to easily sort by area of the state with our interactive map, allowing the reader to see how much taxpayer money each company got, and exactly what purpose the government had for giving the company the money (employee training, property tax elimination, etc). It is easy for the government to talk about all the great “investments” it made, but giving taxpayers the actual numbers allows them to make a decision on their own.

In addition, we went on the offensive when it came to educating the state on corporate welfare, teaming up with the left-leaning national organization Good Jobs First in writing op-eds for all four of the major newspapers in the state.  

We also made a mini-documentary on the real victims of corporate welfare. Normally when discussing this issue, opponents of crony capitalism talk about why tax dollars should not be funding private businesses, which we of course agree with. However, we decided to take a different route on this documentary showing the real losers of corporate welfare—small business owners. We interviewed two furniture store owners in the city of Memphis who had to compete against Ikea, the company that just received $9.5 million in taxpayer money.  Seeing this deal from the perspective of someone it hurts is every bit as important as showing the facts and numbers.

Ultimately, our effort in stopping corporate welfare has just begun. Before we can do anything to curb the practice, we need to make sure that we are educating the citizens on an issue that has been one-sided until now.

Mark Cunningham is the Director of Communications and Marketing for the Beacon Center of Tennessee.