The Biden administration revised its agricultural debt relief program, allowing impoverished farmers of any race to apply for benefits.
A coalition of Black farmers have filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that the recent repeal of a debt forgiveness program amounts to an egregious breach of contract.
According to Reuters, the lawsuit was filed following the Department of Agriculture’s announcement of a revised debt relief program, passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
The program, reports Reuters, allocates aid on the basis of economic aid rather than race.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers operating and ownership loans through its Farm Service Agency, or F.S.A.
The Farm Service Agency had previously said that it would forgive loan debt held by farmers it describes as “socially disadvantaged,” largely to compensate for decades-long discriminatory lending practices.
The federal government has defined “socially disadvantaged” farmers largely on ethnic lines, covering Black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian farmers.
However, White farmers have alleged discrimination since the program’s inception, stalling its progress with repeated and numerous lawsuits.
The Department of Agriculture eventually gave in to the farmers’ political pressure, releasing an alternative debt relief program that discounted race in favor of economic need.
Marissa Perry, an Agriculture spokesperson, stressed that the Biden administration had supported the original debt relief plan. However, the department was forced to revise its debt forgiveness criteria because of aggressive litigation.
“However, the $5 billion that was intended to help farmers was frozen by three nationwide injunctions that prevented USDA from getting payments out the door. The government vigorously defended this program in the courts but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion provided in ARPA remained frozen. This litigation would likely have not been resolved for years,” Perry said in a press release.
Now, Black farmers allege that the government’s about-face constitutes an abrupt breach of contract: the lawsuit includes testimony from several small-scale farmers who claim to have made financial plans or purchased equipment with the expectation that their debt would be discharged.
“We did not receive that money, and now it’s putting us in a financial bind,” said farmer and plaintiff Princess Williams, one of the 14,000 farmers of color who received letters from the United States Department of Agriculture promising large-scale debt relief.
The farmers, adds Reuters, are represented by prominent civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.
“They relied on the promises of the government,” Crump said in a statement. “We are here to say, America, we are not going to allow you to continue to break your promises to Black people and brown people and Native Americans and Asian people.”