Why debt relief for black minority farmers is a civil rights victory

The US bailout went into effect two months ago, and we’ve already seen hunger drops by more than 40%. The unemployment rate fell by more than half thanks to the creation of over 1.5 million new jobs.

These checks for $ 1,400 allowed families to repay the debt accumulated during the pandemic. And federal dollars have brought COVID-19 vaccinations to nearly 160 million Americans across the country.

For black and minority farmers, the US bailout could represent one of the most important civil rights pieces of legislation in decades. That’s because at the bottom of the law is a provision that responds to decades of systemic discrimination perpetrated against farmers and ranchers of color by the US Department of Agriculture.

the law orders USDA to repay agricultural loans to nearly 16,000 minority farmers and begin to address long-standing racial equity challenges that have plagued farmers of color for generations.

Today, after months of planning, the USDA is launching this historic debt relief program.

For much of USDA’s history, black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, and other minority farmers have faced discrimination – sometimes overt and sometimes through deep-rooted rules and policies – that have kept them from reaching as much as their counterparts who do. not face these documented acts of discrimination.

For example, in 2020 the USDA distributed tens of billions of dollars to farmers due to COVID-related market losses. But those payments mostly went to white producers while socially disadvantaged producers – a legal term for blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and farmers of color – received only 1% of aid.

The reason the payments have gone so heavily to white farmers is that the system is against farmers of color. Most agricultural programs are based on the size of an operation and its exit history.

White farmers have advantages including more land and larger farms that have produced more crops and livestock over a longer, documented period of time. And because these farms are larger, better capitalized, and produce most of the crops and livestock, they receive most of the USDA payments when the payments are distributed. As a result, socially disadvantaged farmers continue to fall further and further behind.

Black farmers lost their land

Owning land is a major asset. Land owned by black farmers virtually disappeared in the 20th century due to federal dispossession and systemic discrimination against black farmers. From the late 1800s to the early 21st century, black families have lost almost 98% of their land, and the number of black farmers has grown from over a million to less than 50,000 today.

In 1990, Congress sought to combat discrimination by creating programs for “socially disadvantaged producers” – a term identifying persons whose members have been victims of racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity.

In the 1990s, The USDA has also started to settle civil rights cases. compensate minority farmers for specific acts of discrimination by the ministry against them. Yet the settlements and the programs did not change the system. The cumulative effects of discrimination had set in, as evidenced by the 1% example.

And then COVID hit.

In addition to the economic suffering caused by the pandemic, socially disadvantaged communities a disproportionate share of COVID infection rates, hospitalizations, death and unemployment or underemployment. It has become even more difficult for socially disadvantaged farmers to pay their debts, which has once again left them behind.

$ 5 billion targeted for debt relief

The American Rescue Plan has sought to combat cumulative discrimination by giving the USDA new tools and resources. The law provides approximately $ 5 billion to provide historic debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who hold an eligible farm loan.

The bailout also provides additional funding and direction for the USDA to begin a long-term effort to advance equity and eliminate systemic discrimination from its programs; part of this long-term effort will be led by an independent equity commission.

Loan repayments will pay off the debt in its entirety and provide additional resources to pay off tax debts and other costs associated with debt relief. Any socially disadvantaged borrower with an eligible USDA loan is eligible for debt relief and any assistance provided to the borrower by the USDA is free.

The process that begins today is truly historic. This represents an opportunity for a historically marginalized group to participate more fully in a fairer and more equitable American agricultural system. It is long overdue.

Tom Vilsack is Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture.

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