Media fail to cover discrimination in USDA programs

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $1.25 billion settlement in the discrimination lawsuit by African-American agriculture producers. The case, commonly known as Pigford I or II, represents the largest civil rights settlement in the history of the United States. Yet very few media outlets provided original or continued coverage of the case.

The two media outlets that most frequently gave the settlement attention were National Public Radio and the Washington Post. Both are based in the D.C. area and are known for covering the national political scene. The Associated Press had a handful of articles and briefs related to the case. The NPR reports and AP articles then were recycled through media outlets across the United States.

Granted, limited attention is better than no attention – but why, in a region in which agriculture is a leading industry, did we not see more original reporting by Midwest media?

Racism played a part.

Political pundits and special-interest groups have conditioned agriculture producers and residents of the Midwest to believe that all non-white members of society are out to get them. Specifically, that minority populations want to live off the “hard work” of good “ ’Mericans” while contributing nothing to society.

White agriculture producers in the Midwest have been led to believe urban, minority populations have objectives and beliefs that not only differ from theirs, but directly oppose rural values.

This is not true. But by not addressing the issue head-on, and by not covering continual issues of discrimination within the USDA, media are allowing this myth to perpetuate.

Pigford I and II directly addressed issues of discrimination of African-American producers by USDA employees. It was determined that African-American producers were not given equal access to USDA loans and resources. Similar to the Pigford case was the class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by American Indian producers who also were denied loans. The Keepseagle case resulted in a $760 million settlement with USDA in 2010. There are two additional class-action lawsuits pending: one involving Latino producers, the other female producers.

Given the substantial price tag that includes manpower costs, legal fees and more than $2 billion in settlements (with much more likely), media should be providing in-depth coverage of these cases. Furthermore, media should be calling for swift and thorough changes in USDA policy. However, most media continue to ignore the subject.

This results in most of the U.S. population remaining unaware of the rampant discrimination taking place in one of our largest federal agencies.

In August,the USDA’s Office of Inspector General presented its annual list of top management challenges facing the agency. Included in this list of the top nine issues was the ongoing issue of the treatment of minorities and access to USDA programs for non-white, non-male producers. The report cited the creation of the office of assistant secretary for civil rights, which was established in 2009, but said the office is struggling to meet its objectives of offering fast resolution to discrimination claims and equal access to programs.

This report is public record, easily obtainable by media and citizens. So why have Midwest media outlets not picked up this report and generated local stories about the issue?

When it comes to federal agriculture programs, discrimination and bigotry are not limited to USDA. The U.S. Senate and House committees on agriculture also show signs of this underlying “us against them” sentiment.

Committee members from Midwest states, (many white, many male, many Republican), introduce bills and lead policy development that favors large agribusiness and not small operations such as those owned by minority producers. Furthermore, when farm bill funding is discussed, many of these lawmakers hone in on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rather than on programs that funnel money to large corporations and landowners.

SNAP, commonly known as the food-stamp program, receives the lion’s share of the farm bill appropriations. The 2008 farm bill allocated $76 billion out of $92 billion annual spending to SNAP. The initiative also serves the largest slice of the U.S. population for a farm bill program: 15 percent of the U.S. population receives SNAP benefits, compared to the less than 2 percent eligible for direct payments or subsidies.

Midwest media are more than willing to give space and time to politicians calling for SNAP reform, which includes mandatory drug testing, reduction in services and a cap on benefits. Most of the comments falsely imply that SNAP beneficiaries are all urban minorities who “do nothing.”

What is not often – if ever – present in media coverage are facts, such as:

  • The average monthly SNAP benefit is $133.42 per participant, based on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A family cannot have an income higher than 130 percent of the poverty level to qualify for SNAP. However, to qualify for direct (DP) or counter-cycle payments (CCP) from USDA, a producer can make up to $250,000 average annual farm income. Furthermore, “The 2008 Farm Act sets the payment limit for DPs at $40,000 per person or legal entity and for CCPs at $65,000,” according to USDA.
  • Almost all of the $76 billion in SNAP benefits goes back into the economy. Unlike DP or CCP programs that go to businesses and landowners to accumulate wealth, these funds are spent for daily living. The benefit recipients get the food they need to survive. Local retailers and distributors get income from the sale of product. Producers get to sell their products.
  • SNAP is a safety net for agriculture producers. If the SNAP program were dissolved, a substantial market for U.S. agriculture products would dissolve with it.
  • The “farm bill” label promotes a bucolic notion of the agriculture industry and protects the big business behind it. It also establishes that “non-farmers” (i.e., urban and minority populations) do not belong in policy discussions. In reality, it should be called the “food bill,” which would open up how the legislation is perceived and who is “allowed” to participate in the discussion.

Journalists should be the watchdogs of government and business, and they should inform the public of gross mismanagement and unfair treatment of citizens.

Journalists need to address issues of racism in the Midwest head-on. Covering issues of discrimination in USDA programs is just one of the ways this could – and should – happen.