WASHINGTON — Tucked into the massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday was a provision aimed at benefiting farmers of color who are socially disadvantaged, in a move to cover outstanding debt.
The provision, which was drawn from the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, was inserted into the relief package and includes $5 billion of which will go to socially disadvantaged farmers of color. These include Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian American farmers. Four billion dollars would go toward covering up to 120% of outstanding debt, and another $1 billion is designated for outreach, training, education, technical assistance and grants.
It’s part of the $10.4 billion provided in the package for agricultural and food supply sectors.
The inclusion of relief for farmers of color has been hailed as vital to addressing historic inequalities, particularly for Black farmers, whose numbers have been in decline and who have faced discrimination.
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The loan provision is intended to “address the historical discrimination against socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and address issues” related to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the text of the bill.
Republican criticism of measure
It has met mixed reaction as some see it as a long-needed attempt to repair historic injustices, while others including prominent Republican lawmakers have accused Democrats of adding it to the relief package as part of a “wish list” that does not have to do with the pandemic.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., slammed “out-of-control liberals” for putting it in the stimulus package, while accusing the provision of being “reparations” — remedies that may include compensation to address the U.S. government’s role in perpetuating the harms of slavery against Black Americans.
“In this bill, if you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120% of your loan … if you’re socially disadvantaged, if you’re African American, some other minority, but if you’re a white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations. What does that have to do with COVID?” Graham said in an interview with Fox News.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., said it was “unconstitutional” and argued that Congress should not pass aid that would only go toward those of the “right race.” Republican senators attempted to remove the provision from the stimulus package with an amendment proposed by Toomey.
The legislation was led by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., along with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.; and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
“For too long, farmers of color have been left to fend for themselves, not getting the support that they deserve from the USDA, making it even more difficult for them to recover from this pandemic,” Warnock said in a Senate floor speech responding to Toomey. “We have an opportunity here to lift all of our rural communities by aiming the aid where it is needed given our historic past, which is very much present.”
‘Historically left out of federal aid’
Black farmers in the U.S., who are concentrated in the South in states like Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi, have been historically discriminated against, losing an estimated 12 million acres of farmland since the 1950s.
A study done by the Government Accountability Office in 2019 found that, according to USDA data, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers get a disproportionately small amount of farm loans compared to farmers and ranchers of other groups.
In 2010, Congress approved a settlement of $1.2 billion in what was known as the “Pigford case,” after thousands had previously received payments as part of a 1999 class-action settlement to address claims that the USDA denied loans and other assistance to Black farmers because of their race. The USDA has for decades faced accusations of discrimination.
Proponents of the stimulus bill provision say the infusion for Black farmers would be the most significant since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to The Washington Post.
“The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act would provide financial assistance to help those farmers who historically have been left out of federal aid,” said a statement by John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association in a statement lauding the inclusion of the provision in the stimulus bill.
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Biden has pledged that his administration will aim to tackle inequalities in the agriculture industry. His administration has also backed a proposal to study reparations for slavery that is being contemplated by Congress.
“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. On top of the economic pain caused by the pandemic, farmers from socially disadvantaged communities are dealing with a disproportionate share of COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt,” Biden’s pick to head the USDA, Tom Vilsack, said in a statement applauding the passage of the relief package.
Congress passed the sweeping stimulus package, which includes $1,400 direct checks to individuals, billions to help schools and colleges reopen and funding for vaccine distribution, and it was signed into law by Biden on Thursday.
Contributing: Joey Garrison