Sunday, February 12, 2017

Civil rights and the USDA in the modern era (Part II)

In my previous post, I discussed the USDA’s history with civil rights in the modern era. This week I will discuss the results of the changes the Obama administration made, as well as what changes are likely to come under the Trump administration.

The USDA has advanced significantly in regards to civil rights in the past eight years. The processing time for new civil rights program complaints was reduced from approximately four years to eighteen months. The inventory of pending civil rights complaints was reduced to its lowest level in five years, with a 97% decrease in claims filed. This demonstrates the success of the USDA’s aggressive approach to reformation. The past eight years have seen the lowest level of equal opportunity employment complaints and program participant’s complaints in the USDA’s history. The Farm Service Agency, which is the agency that most frequently interacts with farmers directly, saw a 70% decrease in complaints.

The farm loan program also saw significant improvements. The amount lent to underserved producers, such as people of color or LGBT individuals, has more than doubled from 380 million in 2008 to almost 830 million in 2015.  A microloan program was launched, and although it was not intended specifically to target minority farmers, they make up a significant portion of participants. These programs, in conjunction with the other efforts by the USDA, have managed to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic farmers by 12 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

LGBT rights is another area that has seen improvements since 2008. The USDA established a Special Emphasis Program for LGBT employees in order to improve employment and advancement opportunities, to identify causes of discrimination, and to increase cultural sensitivity in the workplace. The USDA’s nondiscrimination clause was amended to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.  And finally, they created the LGBT Rural Summit Series and the #RuralPride Campaign.

After the outcome of the 2016 election Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was among the many Democrats who pointed to a lack of understanding and attention to rural voters as being a significant factor in the election. He left the position on January 13th, causing the post to become empty. The Agriculture Secretary was the last cabinet position to be filled by the Trump administration, and people speculated that Trump would select a woman or a person of color to add diversity to his predominantly white cabinet.

These speculations turned out to be wrong, as on January 19th Donald Trump announced former Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue as his selection for Agriculture Secretary. Purdue is from the rural town Bonaire, Georgia, and in this regard he is a somewhat unusual pick as in past decades the Agriculture Secretary has been from the Midwest. In a statement released by the Trump administration, Purdue describes himself as "a simple Georgia farm boy". 

We can only speculate on what changes Purdue is likely to make, but some predictions can be gathered from his actions as Georgia governor. As governor, one of Purdue's primary focuses was saving money for the state, so it is likely that many programs that saw their budgets increased will have them reduced to the level they were under the Bush administration. A devout Southern Baptist, Purdue once led a prayer for rain to end a drought in Georgia so his religious beliefs may have an impact on the priorities and choices of the USDA. The USDA web page with information on the LGBT Rural Summit Series has been removed, likely signaling that the program will be terminated. 

We may also see changes with regards to climate change programs. In 2014 Purdue wrote an op-ed stating

Climate change, we’re told, is responsible for heavy rains and drought alike...It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.

It has only been a month since Purdue was selected as Agriculture Secretary, so it is still uncertain what changes he will make. Perhaps the success of the civil rights reforms will mean that they are here to stay, as fewer complaints filed results in cost savings. Right now we can only wait and see. 


Kyle Kate Dudley said...


This was such an interesting and informative post! Along with part I, I have learned so much about the intersection of Civil Rights and the USDA. I guess it hadn't occurred to me that the Department of Agriculture would impact the civil rights of so many citizens. I was thrilled to learn more. In the first post, I was impressed by programs like the OAO and the Civil Rights program task force. I am now disappointed that Sonny Perdue could restructure or remove programs like those, and that its possible that the LGBT Special Emphasis program could be in jeopardy (based on the Summit information removal). It seems particularly appalling to me that an administration so built on rural interests would immediately place a person at the head of the USDA who has, in previous times, had big business chemical companies as his top supporters. ( That seems the opposite of Ag-Civil-Rights to me.

Thanks for these great posts!

ofilbrandt said...

This was a great follow up to the particular changes in the USDA under the Obama Administration compared to the Bush Administration. I would be interested to see what it looked like under another liberal POTUS, like Clinton. This comparison would illustrate if such changes are reflective of a political party or a particular person in the Presidency. Was one of Obama's platforms USDA reform or was civil rights enforcement in general a platform of his? I presume so but would be interested to see the comparison.

The microloan program unintentionally gathering minority participants is a happy situation. I would be interested to know if minority people are already in the area and staying with the program or being encouraged to move there to satisfy the requirements of the program. African American people making up 12% of the program and Hispanic people making up 21% is crazy. These minorities are both under 10% of rural populations each. I find this inspiring and encouraging.

Thanks and keep up the great work!