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On Black People Getting Away With Things

Cynic looks at the math on Pigford, which we talked about here...


...At worst, what's taking place in Pigford II is that a government agency, struggling to identify those harmed by its discriminatory policies, decided under pressure to use a maximal interpretation of potential harm, opening the door for many claimants to receive damages even when the harm they experienced was extremely marginal and would not in other circumstances have merited compensation.

In other words, the reasonable conservative critique of this program should probably be that it erred too far in the presumption of harm. And that would open the door to an interesting argument. After all, in the years covered in the case, family farms struggled across the nation. Many of the Pigford farms that struggled or failed would presumably have struggled or failed even if aid had been available. 

On the other hand, since it's almost impossible to retrospectively separate those that might have survived or thrived with aid from those that would not have done so, the government seems to have reasonably acceded to demands to compensate all potential victims. The merits of that decision are, of course, open to reasonable debate. But instead, many conservatives leaped to the presumption of fraud. Here's the CRS report, explaining the famed 18,000 black farmers:
 
Essentially, the number of African American farms was treated as synonymous with the number of African American operators. These statistics, however, failed to recognize that many farms are operated by more than one farm operator...

In addition, a farm operator might operate rented or leased land owned by a principal operator. In such a case, that operator renting or leasing farmland would not have been counted as the operator of that farm....

The varying Census definitions of farm, farm operator, and farm owner help explain why the number of initial claimants in the Pigford case (approximately 94,000) was higher than the number of farms/farm operators enumerated by the Census of Agriculture between 1982 and 1997 and why the estimated number of potential Pigford II claimants may be greater than the number of farms/farm operators enumerated in those or subsequent Census counts.
The report goes on to note other potential sources of error: those who attempted to farm, but were denied the loans that the needed, were harmed because they never qualified to be counted, and as others have pointed out in this thread, farmers who entered or left the business, and their estates, might also have legitimate claims but not be captured by one or more census enumerations. 

But the biggest point is that claims are not the same as payments. Fully 31% of claims in the initial settlement were denied. That tens of thousands more have now filed claims is evidence that many people hope to receive payments; it does not necessarily mean that they qualify, and if they don't, they may not have any fraudulent intent.

Often, enterprising attorneys (who gain preparatory or filing fees) and activist groups (which would rather file too many claims than too few) encourage people to file even if their claims are unlikely to be filled under the terms of the settlement. Add that together, and a picture of a fairly ordinary government program emerges. Counting multiple operators probably puts the tally above 30,000. Add in those unable to purchase farms, those who leased them, those who passed in and out, and eligible estates and heirs, and you may well have several tens of thousands more. 

And, in all probability, the balance of the claims will be denied as they should be -- which is evidence of the process functioning as it should. If all the claims were honored, that would probably mean the criteria were too loose, and that too few potential applicants actually applied. 

There's a broader point here. When suburbanites donate their old, broken-down cars to charity at inflated valuations to maximize their write-offs, or claim routine costs as business expenses, conservatives tend to rail against poorly constructed incentives, and lament that crack-downs and extensive documentation requirements may deter desirable behaviors like charitable giving or entrepreneurial activity. When their less affluent neighbors file for social welfare benefits, the same sort of profit-maximizing behavior gets labeled as fraud, and blamed on their inherent shiftlessness and eagerness for free handouts. And if they happen to be black -- well, no further inquiry is required.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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