In recognition of the significant contributions of Hispanics to American society, President Bush has proclaimed Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. Like all Americans, Hispanics cherish the values of faith, family, freedom and entrepreneurship.

At a time when rural America is facing challenges as important as any in recent memory, the dynamic growth of Hispanic populations in rural areas offers new energy, new ideas and new directions. Today this demographic shift can serve as a powerful engine of growth and prosperity.

The Bush Administration is actively supporting the efforts of Hispanic Americans to build better lives for themselves and their families.

For example, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are many programs that help Hispanic farmers and ranchers. While the total number of farm operators has steadily declined since 1978, the number of Hispanic farm operators since then has doubled to approximately 30,000.

USDA offers them practical, supportive and effective tools aimed at finding a successful balance of profitability and productivity, while conserving our land. During 2002, Hispanic farm operators participated in more than 50 programs, receiving $55 million in disaster assistance, commodity supports and credit and loans, all to assure a reliable, safe and affordable food supply for our country.

We also do much more. Ensuring that all eligible families receive the nutrition assistance they need is a priority. USDA helps to meet these needs through the Food Stamp, School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Women, Infants & Children programs.

President Bush successfully sought to make legal immigrants, who have lived in the U.S. for five years as qualified aliens, again eligible to participate in the Food Stamp program. The proposal, which benefits nearly 400,000 Hispanic families and became law as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, represents an important step in the on-going effort to improve access for low-income households and in restoring fairness and equity for legal immigrants.

According to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, only 10 percent of Hispanics graduate from four-year colleges and universities. To help address the educational challenges faced by Hispanics, USDA has established internship, scholarship, fellowship and grant programs that work in collaboration with Hispanic-Serving Institutions to improve the educational achievement of Hispanic students and prepare them for successful and rewarding careers. In 2002, USDA invested more than $34 million in educational programs targeting Hispanic students and institutions.

USDA is also rural America’s venture capitalist, providing financing for housing, community services, and small business opportunities in rural areas across the country. In that role, we are helping rural Hispanics open new businesses, buy their first homes, and strengthen their roots in local communities. We are helping them to claim their part of the American Dream – “El Sueño Americano.”

USDA is working to implement President Bush’s pledge to end the minority homeownership gap. While the overall homeownership rate has reached 68 percent, only 48 percent of Hispanics are homeowners. The goal of the President’s Minority Homeownership Initiative is to increase the number of minority homeowners by 5.5 million families by 2010. USDA has responded by simplifying the home-buying process, recruiting minority lenders, and actively promoting credit counseling and homeownership education.

Through a partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, USDA is improving the living and economic conditions of rural residents of the Southwest border region, particularly in areas commonly called the “colonias,” where many historically underserved settlements often have no running water, waste disposal or other services.

Across America, whether as newcomers or as members of long-established communities, the contributions of Hispanic Americans are vital to ensuring our continued economic growth and prosperity.

As the Hispanic population has grown to represent roughly one in every eight Americans, we face a brighter and brighter future, in which the limits to opportunity are found only in the imagination.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman wrote this Op-ed article before embarking on a recent visit to New Mexico and Arizona.

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