Trump’s USDA Perpetuates the Agency’s History of Racism

Volunteers distribute food from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida to families during a drive-through event on April 17, 2020, at the New Jerusalem Church in Kissimmee, Florida.

This column is the final entry in a three-part series examining the consequences of the Trump administration’s appointment of Sonny Perdue as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The first column discussed Perdue’s attacks on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), both before the pandemic and as it unfolded, amid a worsening hunger crisis. The second column explored the corporate-friendly policies and stakeholders Perdue prioritized during the pandemic over struggling low-income constituents. This third and final installment examines the future of programs such as SNAP under Secretary Perdue.

While the hunger crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has neglected the highly effective Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, in favor of corporate-friendly policies that have failed to contain a worsening hunger crisis.

These policies—exemplified by the dichotomy between the USDA’s concurrent cuts to SNAP and its bailouts for farmers—reveal which constituents the administration believes are worthy of government assistance, as well as the racist narratives deployed to mask the policies’ discriminatory effects. Until the USDA is led by a secretary dedicated to learning from the agency’s history of racism and rooting out its lingering effects, millions of people will continue to suffer under poverty and hunger.

The USDA’s cruel treatment of poor people is not new

As discussed previously in this series, Perdue’s USDA once proposed cutting SNAP by kicking 3.7 million people off the program over the course of 2019. When Secretary Perdue recommended these changes, however, he did not market them as cuts. Instead, the agency claimed that it was helping SNAP recipients reach “self-sufficiency through the dignity of work.” By packaging these cuts in a narrative that questioned the work ethic and morality of recipients, the USDA attempted to distract the general public from the cruel reality that these policies would take food from poor people; they are cuts by another name. When striking down the first of these three rules, a federal judge called it “arbitrary and capricious.”

The USDA deploys these marketing tactics because, according to polling, the cuts are deeply unpopular across party lines. In fact, a majority of Americans supported expanding nutrition programs such as SNAP even before the worsening hunger crisis. For decades, seemingly innocuous language and terms such as “self-sufficiency” and “dignity of work” have been used as racist dog whistles to stigmatize safety net programs and their recipients.

One notorious example is President Ronald Reagan’s popularization of the term “welfare queen,” a myth based on a real Black woman named Linda Taylor who exaggerated her welfare fraud, which was used to turn her into a salient political tool. The goal was to transform the word “welfare” and everything associated with it—whether fraud or mere recipiency—into a rhetorical stand-in for any Black people in need of assistance. In doing so, the perpetrators put a less overtly racist approach to the same discriminatory policies. The “Southern strategy” delivered President Reagan two terms in the White House, but this fear-mongering tactic was not his invention.

Dating as far back as the Reconstruction era following the Civil War—when racist opposition in the North and South stifled the effort to build the equitable economic and social order Black Americans deserved—many white leaders criminalized Black citizens’ newfound autonomy in order to preserve a cheap source of labor. In addition to the white ruling class’s hoarding of land and capital, laws prohibiting “vagrancy” and other invented crimes equated Black people’s time spent not laboring with criminal immorality. This betrayal constituted a refurbished version of the same Black-white, slave-master, labor-capital caste, further entrenching a Black-white wealth gap that persists today—where the median white family now holds 10 times the wealth of the median Black family.

The difference between “relief” and “handouts” is who receives the money

Secretary Perdue extends the legacy of those dog whistles when he claims that SNAP benefits, which average $1.40 per person per meal, foster “dependency” among recipients; yet when discussing the $16 billion in direct payments administered to farmers in order to provide COVID-19 relief, Perdue has no doubts about these recipients’ work ethic. In a USDA statement, he said: “America’s farmers are resilient and will get through this challenge just like they always do with faith, hard work, and determination.”

These payments are not the first. While pursuing billions in cuts to SNAP, Secretary Perdue simultaneously and unilaterally oversaw more than $28 billion in government assistance for farmers due to the president’s self-imposed trade war with China.

That number, which comprises more than a third of SNAP’s 2018 budget, does not include the billions in USDA’s annual farm subsidies. One study, for example, showed that Southern cotton farmers received payments that were 33 times larger than the estimated financial impact of the trade war.

The USDA’s willingness to risk overcompensation for the sake of speedily disbursing farmer bailouts provides a stark contrast to the condescending and stingy treatment of SNAP and its recipients. This contradictory dichotomy becomes clear when looking at who comprises each group of recipients.

SNAP, which issued benefits to 38 million people in 2019, exists to reduce hunger and alleviate poverty. Because of long-standing systemic racism and inequity, communities of color—in particular, Black people—disproportionately suffer from both. Black households’ food insecurity rates are nearly twice that of the general population, and 1 in 5 Black adults under 60 years of age live below the poverty line. Latinx households and individuals, meanwhile, face similarly high rates compared with the general population. SNAP responds accordingly; in 2016, it provided relief to 13 million Black people and 10 million Latinx people.

The farming community, however, is small—with 2 million farms in operation in 2017—and disproportionately and increasingly white. In spite of the post-Reconstruction policies described earlier, by their apex in 1920, Black farmers managed to acquire 925,710 farms, representing approximately one-seventh of the country’s total operations. In the century since, however, so-called race-neutral discriminatory policies pushed Black farmers off their land and out of the industry. As a result, by 2012, less than 2 percent of farms were owned by Black people.

As the farming industry has become more white, it has also become more corporate. In Wisconsin in 2019, Secretary Perdue visited dairy farmers, an industry dealing with rising suicide rates in part due to this economic squeeze. However, Perdue was not sympathetic, telling the crowd: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”

As USDA secretary, he’s helped ensure that holds true. In addition to revoking Obama-era rules that protected farmers from exploitative corporations, the trade war bailouts were rigged to benefit the rich. According to an NPR analysis, 100,000 individuals received more than 70 percent of the $28 billion in government payments; and in the second round of payments, Secretary Perdue doubled the maximum cap per person, ensuring that the largest farm operators could collect more taxpayer funds.

Whether a pandemic is raging or not, Secretary Perdue’s USDA administers tens of billions of dollars in government assistance to a broad spectrum of constituencies every year. Through both discriminatory policies and dog whistle-laden narratives, the agency signals which recipients are getting “relief” and which are getting “handouts.”

Conclusion

This three-part series examined the consequences of the Trump administration’s appointment of Sonny Perdue to the USDA and his failed coronavirus response. In refusing to maximize the hunger-alleviating potential of programs like SNAP in favor of unproven corporate-friendly policies, Secretary Perdue is perpetuating centuries-old systems of racial inequity in the long term and inflicting hunger-related suffering in the near term.

There are policies that a USDA secretary dedicated to rooting out systemic racism in the agency and reducing the racial wealth gap in this country can and should pursue. Additionally, because 65 percent of the USDA’s annual budget goes to the Food and Nutrition Service, which houses SNAP and exists to reduce hunger, it is not unreasonable to expect leadership of the department to marshal the full resources of the agency toward achieving that goal.

However, the first step to achieve any of this is to appoint a USDA secretary with a demonstrated ability and desire to aggressively govern on behalf of poor people and communities of color instead of corporations and the rich. Over the course of his nearly four years in power, Sonny Perdue has made clear he is not that secretary.

David Ballard is the campaigns and communications manager for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Areeba Haider, Christine Sloane, Taryn Williams, Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, Azza Altiraifi, and Julia Cusick, along with the entire CAP Editorial team, for their guidance throughout this series. Additionally, the author would like to thank Olugbenga Ajilore, Zoe Willingham, and Danyelle Solomon for lending their insight and expertise, as well as Jaboa Lake and Justin Schweitzer for fact-checking assistance.