Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The racially discriminatory IRS audits revealed in a new report are yet another way of depleting and plundering the wealth of southern black families.
In Baker County, Georgia, a small county in the southern Black Belt, there were 9.2 people audited by the IRS for every 1,000 tax filings between 2012 and 2015—a pretty high rate considering there are roughly only about 3,200 people in the county.
The national audit rate for that time period is 7.7 audits per 1,000 filings. Baker County’s audit rate is well above the 6.4 per 1000 in Washington County, Wisconsin, or the 6.6 audit rate in Sherburne County, Minnesota. The differences between these counties are quite stark: Washington and Sherburne counties have median household incomes of $73,021 and $83,895 respectively compared to Baker’s $43,867. And while roughly half of Baker County’s population is African American, Washington and Sherburne counties both have white populations in the 95 percent range.
These profiles are pretty typical of who does and doesn’t get audited, according to a report on regional IRS audit bias from former IRS economist Kim M. Bloomquist. ProPublica used data from Bloomquist’s report to create a map of where audits are most heavily concentrated, and shockingly the heaviest trail is found across the Black Belt South, from Mississippi to Georgia.
The Black Belt is populated mainly by black farmers, many of whom are living below federal poverty lines. In Baker County, Georgia, 24.6 percent of people are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures. This means that many of Baker County’s workers are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps low-income filers, but it’s the EITC that’s been snagging poorer filers in the IRS’s audit dragnet.
According to Bloomquist, there has been a “realignment of IRS resources from high-income taxpayers to low- and middle-income EITC claimants” since 2010 in terms of tax filing scrutiny, and one that “favors auditing EITC taxpayers at higher rates relative to other taxpayers”—this is happening despite the shrinking of the IRS’s staff and resources.
As ProPublica reported in December:
In 2017, EITC recipients were audited at twice the rate of taxpayers with income between $200,000 and $500,000. … As the IRS has dwindled in size and capability, audits of the poor have accounted for more of what it does. Last year, the IRS audited 381,000 recipients of the EITC. That was 36 percent of all audits the IRS conducted, up from 33 percent in 2011, when the budget cuts began.
The 10 counties with the highest IRS audit intensity are all found in the Black Belt, eight of them in Mississippi alone. Baker County’s 9.2 audit rate pales in comparison to Humphrey County, Mississippi, where the rate is about 11.8 audits per 1,000 filings. The Northeast region of the U.S. meanwhile appears to be largely protected from the IRS’s fine-tooth combs, despite the larger volume of wealthy households in that area.
|County||State||Audit Intensity||Tax Returns||Estimated Audits|
Baker County, Georgia, is worth noting because that is the home of Shirley Sherrod, the African-American woman who was unceremoniously fired from her job at the USDA in 2010 after a video of a speech she gave was selectively edited to make it sound like she was using her post to discriminate against white farmers. It’s worth revisiting that speech in full, as her ordeal helped focus a spotlight on the plight of southern African Americans who’ve had their farms, land, and properties taken from them for decades.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund provides a chronology of this loss, showing that in 1910, there were an estimated 218,000 black farmers who were full- or part-owners of over 15 million acres of land. By 1992, there were fewer than 18,000 black farmers, owning 2.3 million acres of land. Much of that was due to the exploitation of black families who acquired land passed down to them from heirs and family members often without the strong documentation to protect their ownership.
But it’s also owed to decades of discrimination from the USDA who rejected black farmers for loans and grants to help maintain their properties. The Pigford vs Glickman class action lawsuit to have the federal government compensate black farmers for this discrimination just reached some semblance of resolution in 2013 following a protracted court fight that began in the late 1990s. And yet evidence continues to surface that black farmers are still being treated unfairly, losing their farms, and getting finessed out of their assets and resources (Word to Queen Sugar).
Many of those victimized farmers live in the counties that have been disproportionately scrutinized by the IRS. The racially and regionally discriminatory audits are yet another layer of financial burdening added to the long-running narrative of wealth depletion and plundering of black families throughout the South. That this escalation of Black Belt auditing came just as the Pigford lawsuit settlement dollars finally began reaching black farmers’ banks is suspicious, to say the least.