Skip to Content

Feeding at the Public Trough

“Feeding at the public trough” is using government funds to enrich oneself.

Feeding at the public trough refers to activities which are, strictly speaking, legal, but which are generally considered to be morally reprehensible. Someone who feeds at the public trough is fattening himself at the expense of the public.

Origin of “Feeding at the Public Trough”

The term – and the concept – may have come into its own in the late 19th century. During the so-called Gilded Age, America was wealthier and more industrialized than ever before. It was a time when, as the historian Eric Foner has said, “riches more often derived from manipulating stock prices, driving out competitors, and feeding at the public trough, than from entrepreneurial genius.”

Today, the term most often applies to politicians and to businesses. The phrase is universally understood to be negative. Politicians are quick to deny that they themselves (or their associates) are feeding at the public trough.

In 2009 President Obama defended his ideas on healthcare reform and stressed that his plan would allow no feeding at the public trough. The president said, “I think that there is a legitimate concern, if the public plan was simply eating off the taxpayer trough, that it would be hard for private insurers to compete.”

In 2012, MarketWatch complained that it was virtually impossible to balance the budget without curbing subsidies to corporate interests:

The corporate interests who feed at the public trough control the politicians and the media who have worked themselves into a frenzy over the debt and the fiscal cliff. You’ll never see a group of CEOs, like Honeywell’s David Cote or Jim McNerney of Boeing, come to Washington to lobby to have their subsidies eliminated, but you will see them ask for old and sick people to bear the costs of deficit reduction.”

A few years later, the West Virginia Gazette grumbled that President Trump and his staffers were also taking advantage of public money:

During his 15 months in office, Donald Trump and his lackeys have gorged themselves at the public trough to an astounding degree.

Perhaps the largest problem here is emoluments — gifts or benefits to elected officials from foreign governments without congressional approval. The U.S. Constitution prohibits them, and Trump faces a lawsuit from the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia for allegedly violating that constitutional clause.”

Everyone grumbles about feeding at the public trough. But there are nuances. Some observers grumble about the people who feed, and others grumble about the trough itself. John Stossel wrote an editorial for ABC in which he argued that the ever-expanding government is the real problem. Stossel called his piece “The Public Trough Is Bigger Than Ever.” He wrote,

Bill Clinton once declared, “The era of big government is over.” Both Republicans and Democrats applauded.

What a joke.

Government grew under Clinton, and grew even faster under his successor. Government is so big today that more than half of the population gets a major part of its income from the state.

Use of “Feeding at the Public Trough” in a sentence

  • The politician was accused of feeding at the public trough, as he was seen to be using his position of power to enrich himself and his friends.
  • Many people believe that politicians who feed at the public trough are taking advantage of their positions for personal gain, rather than serving the public interest.
  • The practice of feeding at the public trough is seen as a form of corruption, and is often criticized by those who believe that politicians should be held accountable for their actions.