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President Barack Obama has allotted $1.25 billion in the FY 2010 budget to settle discrimination lawsuits by thousands of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This is an issue I worked on in the Senate, and I’m pleased that we are now able to close this chapter in the agency’s history and move on,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday. “My hope is that 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.”
Although he calls the settlement a “huge step in the right direction,” National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd said that more money is needed.
“We need around $2.7 billion to compensate all of the eligible farmers,” said Boyd. “We are appreciative that the administration is in dialogue with us, but as the advocate for [black farmers] I want to make sure there are enough funds to compensate all eligible farmers.”
The black farmers’ case named after one of the original plaintiffs, Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina, was settled in 1999. The USDA agreed to pay farmers for past discrimination in lending and other USDA programs. Nearly $1 billion in damages were paid out on almost 16,000 claims, but nearly 75,000 additional black farmers filed their claims after the deadline.
Boyd says that the USDA did not effectively notify the farmers that there was a settlement, or where farmers could file their complaints. He said that farmers who didn’t have telephones or indoor bathrooms were told to go online for more information about the settlement.
“The USDA was supposed to provide that information and they didn’t. We got the word out ourselves on very limited funds,” says Boyd. “There was no ad campaign.”
As a senator, Obama led the charge to pass the 2008 farm bill allowing the government to reopen the case to farmers who missed the deadline.
Earlier this week, Sens. Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa), and Kay Hagan, (D-N.C.), introduced legislation that would allow access to an unlimited judgment fund at the Department of Treasury to pay successful claims that were not part of the original lawsuit. With the additional claims, some estimate the case could cost the government another $2 billion or $3 billion.