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Multibillion-dollar debt relief for minority farmers is backed by House committee

The House Agriculture Committee approved a landmark $4 billion program of debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers on Wednesday despite Republican objections that the aid was an unconstitutional form of reverse discrimination. Chairman David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, said minority farmers deserved the help because they had been overlooked in the mammoth trade war and coronavirus relief programs that began in 2018.

Under the proposal, the government would pay off USDA loans and USDA-guaranteed loans held by socially disadvantaged farmers and give an additional 20% to the farmers to cover income taxes associated with the debt relief. A similar proposal was pending in the Senate.

Debt relief was a salient part of $16 billion in additional spending approved by the committee on a 25-23, party-line vote during a nearly seven-hour session for inclusion in the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The Agriculture Committee portion would extend a 15% increase in SNAP benefits, now scheduled to expire on June 30, to Sept. 30. It also allocates $3.6 billion for food donations and to protect farmworkers and food system workers from COVID-19.

“The population that we are trying to assist broadly did not benefit from the billions of dollars that were paid down in 2018, 2019, and 2020,” said Scott. “In fact, they faced unique barriers to receiving any aid from our federal government at all.”

Black and other minority-group farmers deserve attention, said Scott and other Democrats, because Trump-era aid programs were directed toward the major crops, such as corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, with big operators getting the largest share of the money. Socially disadvantaged farmers tend to have smaller farms and to grow specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Scott also pointed to the government’s admission in court to decades of discriminatory USDA treatment of Black farmers.

“I think it’s wrong. I don’t understand the justification of this,” said Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican. The government paid $2.2 billion in the so-called Pigford settlements for discrimination by the USDA, he said, but the House’s debt relief proposal “has no requirement for any proof of discrimination.”

In addition, he said, payments of 120% of outstanding debt could easily be challenged as reverse discrimination and unconstitutional.

“The issue is discrimination,” responded the chairman. Black farmers “deserve some compassion and understanding” for their role in agriculture. “We had to do it without compensation, as slaves in this country.”

With no crossover votes, Democrats defeated Republican proposals to limit relief to 100% of the outstanding amount on USDA loans and to cover only debts incurred during the pandemic. They also defeated, also on a party-line vote, a Republican amendment to shift $3.3 billion to job-training programs rather than pay for higher SNAP benefits in July, August, and September.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said the attempts to whittle down the debt relief program were unfair given the limited finances of socially disadvantaged farmers. “We have no backup support in difficulties such as this time to resolve debt that has been incurred prior to COVID-19 and continues to disproportionately force farmers out of business. As Black farmers, we have a long history of being shut out of help from the USDA,” said Boyd.

Also in the Agriculture Committee package were $1 billion for land access, “heirs property” issues, and legal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers; $1 billion in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands; and $800 million for overseas food aid.

Several Republicans on the committee complained that they were unfairly excluded from drafting the package. “This was not a negotiation. It was an ultimatum,” said one of them.

To watch a video of the bill drafting session, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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