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.