Feature

Pigford: The great government giveaway

In 1999, the Clinton administration tried to correct a historic injustice.

In 1999, the Clinton administration tried to correct a historic injustice, said Sharon LaFraniere in The New York Times. For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely denied loans to black farmers while approving them for their white neighbors. Faced with some 1,000 claims in a class-action lawsuit known as Pigford v. Glickman, the government agreed to pay $50,000 to each victim. But since the USDA had destroyed records, claimants were allowed to file for compensation with no evidence of discrimination or even proof that they’d ever worked the land. The program became a “magnet for fraud.” At mass meetings, lawyers filled out forms for claimants, some as young as 4 years old. One Arkansas family was paid $500,000 in claims. To win minority votes, President Obama actually expanded this program of “reparations,’’ said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com, authorizing Hispanic, Native American, and women farmers to file their own claims. Pigford’s eventual price tag may hit $4.4 billion. “It would be hard to invent a more damning fable of modern government.”

The government was caught in a no-win situation, said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. Given the shortage of documentary evidence, it could have set a high bar for evidence of discrimination, knowing that it would “unfairly deny compensation to lots of people who were treated wrongly.” Or it could set a low bar and hand cash to both deserving and undeserving cases. The Justice Department was right to choose the second course, said Kevin Roose in NYMag.com. There can be no doubt that our government systematically discriminated against generations of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities who tried to make a living as farmers. Yes, some of the checks ended up in the wrong hands, but 30 percent of claims were denied. “A little waste might be part of the price we have to pay for equality.”

But we’re not just talking about a few erroneous claims, said the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. In 16 Southern ZIP codes, the number of successful claimants exceeded the number of farms owned by people of any race, and a third of claims went to people in mostly urban areas. The government came very close to handing out cash blindly, and the widespread fraud in the 90,000 claims that followed was almost inevitable. “Any time you are going to throw money up in the air,” said one of the original Pigford claimants, “you are going to have people acting crazy.”

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