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House panel to vote on SNAP extension and minority farmer debt relief

Following President Biden’s lead, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee proposed an extension until Sept. 30 of the temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits on Tuesday. Chairman David Scott also included a sweeping proposal for the government to pay off USDA loans and USDA-guaranteed loans held by socially disadvantaged farmers “to put our Black farmers in a better position” after decades of discrimination.

Scott unveiled the $16.1-billion package, which would become part of a $1.9-billion coronavirus relief bill, ahead of a committee vote scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. The package has $3.6 billion for food donations to fight hunger and to protect food system workers from COVID-19; $1 billion for nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories; and $1 billion to improve land access, address “heirs property” issues, and provide legal assistance to Black, indigenous, and farmers of color.

“This bill is a stepping stone to the vision President Biden has set forth to get our country back on track,” said Scott, Georgia Democrat, in a statement. “Every dollar included in this legislation plays an invaluable role in doing that.”

Biden asked for the Sept. 30 SNAP extension and the aid to Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands when he took office three weeks ago as part of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits, enacted at the end of 2020 after months of opposition by the Trump administration and Senate Republicans, is scheduled to expire on June 30.

The senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee criticized the merits of the package and said he was excluded from its drafting. “The package is neither timely nor targeted and will fall devastatingly short of delivering direct relief for the agriculture industry and farm families,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, of Pennsylvania, who voted last month to overturn Biden’s election.

The USDA estimates that net farm income, a gauge of farm profitability, this year will be 20% above its 10-year average, aided by higher commodity prices and $25 billion in federal payments, double the usual amount. The 15% increase in SNAP benefits is worth about $25 a month per person. At latest count, 42.9 million people received food stamps.

“I am pleased to be a part of this effort to put our Black farmers in a better position after suffering the impacts of the pandemic and the inability to receive equal access to USDA programs over decades,” said Scott, referring to the provisions for debt relief and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The group includes Black, American Indian, Alaskan native, Asians, native Hawaiians, and women farmers, according to a USDA definition.

An estimate of the cost of the debt relief was not immediately available from the committee. The package proposed a payment equal to 120% of the outstanding indebtedness of each socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher on loans made directly by USDA or made by a private lender with a USDA loan guarantee.

The loan payoff could raise questions of equity since it would be a one-time payment, restricted to money borrowed through USDA programs and made regardless of a socially disadvantaged farmer’s financial circumstances.

However, the debt retirement proposal and the accompanying initiative on land access and legal assistance fit into a drive in Congress for greater federal attention on minority farmers. This week, Democratic senators announced the Justice for Black Farmers Act to end discrimination at USDA and expand Black ownership of farmland and the $5 billion Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act.

Under the relief bill, $4 billion would be sent to farmers of color to pay off debts on USDA loans and related taxes, “and help them respond to the economic impact of the pandemic.” Like the House Agriculture package, the bill earmarked $1 billion for land access, heirs property, and legal assistance.

“The bill is the culmination of hard work and collaboration among members of the Senate and House and new leadership at USDA who share a common purpose to end inequity in our food and agricultural system,” said USDA chief of staff Katharine Ferguson.

The 17-page text of the House Agriculture package is available here.

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