The Obama administration’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal will include funds to provide a final settlement for the lawsuit that alleged discrimination against minority farmers in USDA’s farm programs.
“I’m pleased that we are now able to close this chapter in the agency’s history and move on,” President Obama said in a statement. “My hope is the farmers and their families who were denied access to USDA loans and programs will be made whole and will have the chance to rebuild their lives and their businesses.”
“I am very pleased that President Obama is taking swift action on this matter as it will help us chart a new course at USDA, one on which all USDA customers and employees are treated equally and fairly,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
In 1999, USDA entered into a consent agreement with black farmers in which the agency agreed to pay for past discrimination in lending and other USDA programs. Thousands of claims have been adjudicated, but other claims were not considered on their merits because problems with the notification and claims process hindered some farmers’ ability to participate.
To deal with the remaining claims, Congress provided these farmers another avenue for restitution in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.
For those who have claims that were not considered on the merits because the claim was found not to be timely, the 2008 farm bill provided the right to file a new claim in federal court. The total amount offered by the federal government, $1.25 billion, includes $100 million that served as a “place holder” in Section 14012 of the Farm Bill.
The announcement comes on the heels of a memorandum released two weeks ago by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack detailing an aggressive plan to promote civil rights and equal access at USDA. The memo announced the following:
• The temporary suspension of all foreclosures within the Farm Service Agency’s farm loan program, which will not only aid farmers facing economic hardship but will also provide the opportunity to review the loan granting process for possible discriminatory conduct;
• The creation of a task force to conduct a review of a sample of program civil rights complaints that have been processed or that are currently being processed — the complaints and inquiries total over 14,000, including over 3,000 that have not been processed;
• Granting greater authority to USDA’s Office of Civil Rights. The assistant secretary for civil rights will collaborate with the other agencies to develop and implement a proposal for data collection across USDA, make sure all complaints are incorporated as part of one data system; and develop USDA policy and training to ensure that all complaints are received and dealt with in a consistent manner within a specific timeframe.
The full text of the memo is available at: http://www.usda.gov/documents/NewCivilRightsEra.pdf.