Obama Wants $1.25 B to Compensate up to 66,000 African American Farmers for USDA Discrimination in 1981-96; Census Says African American Farmers Peaked at 33,000 in Those Years

Nicholas Ballasy | October 14, 2010 | 11:17am EDT
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President Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Philadelphia, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CNSNews.com) - President Barack Obama is requesting $1.15 billion from Congress—to add to a $100-million earmark he pushed through Congress in 2008 when he was a senator—to create a $1.25 billion federal fund to settle discrimination claims by what the Justice Department says is 66,000 African Americans who “farmed or attempted to farm” and were allegedly the victims of discrimination committed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the period from Jan. 1, 1981 to Dec. 31, 1996.

During that 16-year period, however, the number of African American farm operators in the United States peaked at 33,000 in 1982, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1992, says the Census Bureau, the number of African American farmers had fallen as low as 19,000. (There were 2.24 million total farmers in the United States in 1982 and 1.93 million in 1992.)

A "farm operator," according to the Census, is "a person who operates a farm, either doing the work or making day-to-day decisions." Farm operators include both individuals who own farms and who rent them.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman told CNSNews.com that the $1.15 billion the administration is requesting from Congress to settle what is called the Pigford II case is based on complaints of discrimination from 66,000 individual African American farmers who allege the Department of Agriculture wrongfully denied them federal farm loans or benefits between the beginning of 1981 and the end of 1996.

Back in 1997, lawyers brought a class-action suit, Pigford v. Glickman, against the USDA on behalf of African American farmers who allegedly were discriminated against because of their race when they tried to secure federally-backed farm loans or benefit payments.

On January 5, 1999, a federal court ruled in Pigford that the following group was qualified to apply for federal compensation for discrimination by USDA: “All African American farmers who (1) farmed, or attempted to farm, between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996; (2) applied to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) during that time period for participation in a federal farm credit or benefit program and who believed that they were discriminated against on the basis of race in USDA’s response to that application; and (3) filed a discrimination complaint on or before July 1, 1997, regarding USDA’s treatment of such farm credit or benefit application.”

People in this group were given until Oct. 12, 1999 to submit a claim to USDA requesting compensation under the Pigford ruling. The USDA then evaluated these claims to see whether the individual claimants had been treated differently than white farmers. Approximately 20,000 individuals filed claims before the 1999 deadline. Since then, according to news reports, the Agriculture Department has paid about 16,000 of these farmers more than $1 billion in compensation.

In the first eleven months after the Oct. 12, 1999 deadline, however, an additional 61,000 people filed claims seeking compensation under the original Pigford settlement, according to a second Pigford settlement approved by a federal district court in February 2010.

About 2,700 of these 61,000 were deemed to have satisfied an “extraordinary circumstances” test and were permitted to participate in the original claim resolution processes despite missing the deadline.

Ultimately, a Justice Department spokeswoman told CNSNews.com, a total of 66,000 individual African American farmers came forward after the original 1999 Pigford deadline seeking to make a claim against the USDA for discriminating against them on the basis of race in the period of 1981 through 1996.

Counting the original 20,000 who met the 1999 deadline and the 66,000 who did not, there are a total of 86,000 African Americans who “farmed or attempted to farm” from 1981 through 1996 made a claim of discrimination or are seeking to make one against the U.S. government.

Yet, the alleged discrimination against these 86,000 African American farmers occurred during a period when the peak African American farm-operator population was 33,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) pushed to get $100 million appropriated through that year's farm bill to compensate African American farmers who alleged discrimination by USDA during the 1981-1996 period and had missed the 1999 filing deadline under the original Pigford case. “I am also pleased that the bill includes my proposal to help thousands of African-American farmers get their discrimination claims reviewed under the Pigford settlement," Sen. Obama said in a May 15, 2008 statement on his web site after the passage of the bill.

Obama introduced his proposal as the “Pigford Claims Remedy Act of 2007” and it was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

On June 5, 2008, Congress passed the final version of the farm bill containing Obama’s Pigford proposal. The “Determination on Merits of Pigford Claims” section of that bill says: “Any Pigford claimant who has not previously obtained a determination on the merits of a Pigford claim may, in a civil action brought in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, obtain that determination.”

In his fiscal 2010 and 2011 budget requests, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve an additional $1.15 billion to resolve the Pigford claims. So far, Congress has not approved this money. If it does, the administration would have a total of $1.25 billion in tax dollars to hand out to as many as 66,000 African American farmers who claimed that the USDA discriminated against them in 1981-1996 and who were not among the 20,000 who already made claims of discrimination in that period.

“The Department of Justice negotiated with counsel for the [Pigford] plaintiffs, and on February 18, 2010, the parties ultimately agreed to a settlement of $1.25 billion,” a Justice Department spokesperson told CNSNews.com

“Once the funds are appropriated by Congress and the settlement is approved, the $1.25 billion will be distributed among those members of the 66,000 eligible claimants whom a third-party neutral claims administrator determines to be eligible for funds,” the Justice Department spokesperson said.

Robert Bernstein, a spokesman for the U.S. Census Bureau, told CNSNews.com that according to the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstracts of the United States there were 33,000 African American farm operators in 1982; 23,000 in 1987; 19,000 in 1992, and 27,000 in 1997, the year after eligibility for Pigford discrimination claims ended.

Since then, the number of African American farmers in the United States has rebounded somewhat. There were 36,000 in 2002, according to the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States and 40,000 in 2007.

Bernstein said the Census Bureau’s abstracts report new data on U.S. farm operators every 5 years.

CNSNews.com asked the Department of Justice what process it went through to verify the claims of the 66,000 individuals deemed eligible to file for compensation under the Pigford II settlement. A department spokesperson said these individuals in fact have not yet submitted their claims under Pigford II.

“Once the funds are appropriated by Congress and the settlement is approved, the $1.25 billion will be distributed among those members of the 66,000 eligible claimants whom a third-party neutral claims administrator determines to be eligible for funds, in an effort to keep the process fair and void of politics,” said the spokesperson.

When asked why there are 66,000 eligible claimants -- while the Census Bureau says the number of African American farmers in the United States peaked at 33,000 during the period in question -- a Justice Department spokesperson said since the alleged discrimination took place over a 16-year period when different individuals were moving in and out of farming that using a single year, such as 1982, as a reference point “doesn’t work.”

USDA echoed the Justice Department’s comments about the number of eligible Pigford claimants compared to the Census Bureau’s statistics on black farmers.

“Current Census numbers on black farmers are not the proper guide for the number of claimants, and certainly no basis for allegations of fraud,” said Agriculture Department Spokesman Justin DeJong. “Furthermore, I can assure you that regardless of any allegations of fraud in Pigford I, this Administration is committed to ensuring that anyone receiving a payment under Pigford II was the victim of discrimination and has a valid claim that deserves compensation by following the very specific criteria outlined in the 2008 farm bill.”

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