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USDA debt relief for minority farmers is a certainty

In just one month, a proposal for $4 billion in debt relief for Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers went from just-introduced legislation to a near-reality, needing only a final vote in the House as early as Tuesday. The Democrat-authored initiative to retire the farmers’ debts on USDA loans is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan backed by President Biden.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the “transformative debt relief” would be a historic step to help farmers of color, including Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and others. “For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” said Vilsack. COVID-19 infection and death rates are highest among minority groups.

The Senate passed the $1.9 trillion bill on a party-line 50-49 vote on Saturday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House “will have a resounding, hopefully bipartisan vote” on the bill on Tuesday. The House acted first on the coronavirus bill but the Senate made revisions so the House needs to act again.

Debt relief is the largest element among $16 billion in the bill for food and agriculture. It allots $3.6 billion for food donation, loans, and grants to small and medium-size processors, and protective equipment for workers; $3.5 billion for a three-month extension of higher SNAP benefits; $1 billion to improve land access, address the “heirs property” issue and provide legal aid to socially disadvantaged farmers; $1 billion for nutrition assistance for U.S. territories; and $500 million for rural healthcare.

“The essential criteria is your race. This is unbelievable to me,” said Sen. Patrick Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, who tried to delete the provision from the bill. “I don’t know how that could ever be constitutional but certainly not COVID-related.”

Senators voted 50-49 to keep the initiative in the bill, with Democrats in favor of the debt relief and Republicans opposing it. Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, was the only senator not voting. Under the proposal, the USDA would pay up to 120% of outstanding debt held by minority farmers on loans made directly by USDA or through private lenders with USDA guarantees. The additional money would pay taxes associated with debt relief.

Toomey’s amendment was the strongest opposition in Congress to the proposal, which first appeared on Feb. 8 as a bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. All serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is chaired by Stabenow. Two Republican amendments to reduce the scope of debt relief were defeated by the House Agriculture Committee last month.

“This once-in-a-century pandemic, and the economic downturn that followed, has revealed and exacerbated long-standing disparities in our government that have left certain communities behind, particularly Black farmers and farmers of color,” said Warnock. “Considering the urgent need for this funding, and the overwhelming support this proposal has garnered from across the agricultural community, we can’t get this relief passed and out the door quickly enough.”

When they objected to debt relief, Republican lawmakers said it was unfair and an invitation to litigation to focus federal aid on socially disadvantaged farmers with no assessment of need. “Meanwhile, if you’re a poor white farmer in rural Pennsylvania and you have a $100,000 loan, you get nothing,” said Toomey.

“The long history of USDA discrimination against Black farmers and other famers of color is not in dispute,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. “For decades, USDA delayed or denied Black farmers the same loans and payments provided to white farmers.”

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