WASHINGTON — A $4 billion program to help black and other “deprived” farmers that never got off the ground last year due to legal objections is being replaced by a plan to provide relief funds to farmers who have faced discrimination.
The changes, embedded in climate and tax legislation known as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, are drawing backlash from farmers who undertook the original debt relief program, part of America’s $1.9 trillion 2021 bailout plan , meant for help. The new program is the latest twist in an 18-month streak that has underscored the challenges facing the Biden administration’s attempts to make racial justice a centerpiece of its economic agenda.
Black farmers have been in limbo for months, unsure if promised debt relief will be delivered. Many invested in new equipment after applying for money to pay off their debts last year. Some received foreclosure notices from the Department of Agriculture this year as the program languished.
The bill, passed by the Senate this week and expected to be passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, would create two new funds to support farmers. A $2.2 billion one would provide financial support to farmers, ranchers and forest owners who faced discrimination before 2021. The other would provide $3.1 billion to the Department of Agriculture to make payments on loans or loan modifications to farmers facing financial hardship.
The money would replace the $4 billion program designed to help about 15,000 farmers who received loans from the federal government or had bank loans guaranteed by the Department of Agriculture. These included farmers and ranchers who faced racial or ethnic prejudice, including those who are Black, Native American/Alaskan, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Hispanic.
Last year’s pandemic relief package included an additional $1 billion to reach out to farmers and ranchers of color and improve their access to land.
White farmers and groups they represent have questioned whether the government can base debt relief on race, saying the law discriminates against them. The program was frozen as lawsuits made their way through the courts.
The program also faced opposition from banks, who argued that their profits would suffer if the loans they had extended to farmers were suddenly repaid.
Fearing the program would be blocked entirely, Democrats rewrote the law to remove race from the eligibility requirements. It’s not clear how discrimination is defined, and the legislation appears to give the Department of Agriculture broad discretion to allocate the money as it sees fit.
Groups representing black farmers, who have been discriminated against by banks and the federal government for decades, are disappointed that the money is no longer being set aside specifically for them.
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President Biden “has backed out on his commitment to help black farmers,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association.
Mr Boyd compared the situation to the broken promise in the 19th century that ex-slaves would be given 40 acres and a mule, adding: “Justice does not come in alphabetical order in this country. Black always comes last.”
Earlier this year in Texas, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Department of Agriculture by white farmer groups, and organizations representing black farmers have expressed dismay that the new measure Democrats are expected to pass abandons a legal battle over whether the government can Addressing America’s Legacy of Racism Through Law.
“It is unfortunate that the government has acted in such a way that racial justice has been a major focus, and at the first hint of litigation turned its back on how difficult it really is to get the work of racial justice done,” said Dãnia Davy, the Director for land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Ms Davy said her organization was surprised by the new legislation after months of discussions with lawmakers and the Biden administration about how to help black farmers.
Democrats and the Biden administration hailed the legislation as progress.
said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey on Twitter this week“I’m proud that the Inflation Reduction Act includes more than $5 billion that will allow thousands of struggling smallholder farmers to stay on their land, and financially support black farmers and others who have suffered USDA discrimination.” support.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement the new law would give his agency tools to help farmers in distress and bring justice to those who have faced discrimination.
“The Biden-Harris administration is deeply committed to upholding civil rights and promoting equity,” Mr. Vilsack said, “as well as to agricultural producers, particularly small and medium-sized producers, and those who have traditionally excluded USDA’s programs.” or not fully served.”
The Department of Agriculture plans to work with non-governmental organizations to develop the design and process for its part of the program. One of the most difficult tasks will be determining how to define ‘discrimination’ and therefore entitlement.
Gene Sperling, who oversees the Biden administration’s pandemic relief programs, said it was good news that money would soon be flowing to farmers in need.
“Anyone who is sober and realistic about the state of affairs,” Sperling said in a statement, “must recognize that the Senate has entered an almost hopeless situation with zero funds available for distressed or discriminated farmers and turned it to one.” , where there is now $5 billion that can go to tens of thousands of farmers.”
It’s not clear how soon the money will be paid out, or if the white farmer groups that challenged the original law will fight the new programs.
Rick M. Esenberg, the president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented white farmers in one of the first lawsuits, said he is reviewing the new legislation.
“In general, we believe that government benefits cannot be made based on race,” Mr. Esenberg said.
America First Legal, a group led by Stephen Miller, senior political adviser in the Trump administration, that represents white farmer groups, said the law’s revision is an acknowledgment of the illegality of the original programs.
“Apparently, President Biden and his allies in Congress have acknowledged that their unlawful, unconstitutional, racially discriminatory program was effectively crushed in court by America First Legal on behalf of his clients,” said Gene Hamilton, an attorney in the Trump administration who represents America works first legally.
“The final passage of the bill in the House of Representatives this week will be their public acknowledgment of their defeat,” added Mr. Hamilton, “and we will stand ready to take them to court again over plans to try to to replace them.”