Immigration Facts Among the Fantasies

This morning's Democrat and Chronicle featured two op-eds by experts discussing H R 371, the "AgJobs" bill. This bill creates a new class of non-resident workers, who will receive "blue card" status. Workers in the country illegally will be eligible for blue cards. Once a blue card is obtained, the worker may have his status promoted to "green card" or permanent resident status after five years if certain conditions are met.

Randy Kuhl is one of 28 cosponsors of this bill. I've already discussed the political implications of Kuhl's reversal of his earlier opposition to AgJobs, as well as the response by conservative columnist Bob Lonsberry. Today, I want to take a closer look at one issue raised by Lonsberry and peripherally in the op eds: could Americans be doing these jobs?

James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, opens the issue with this statement:

Our industry is wholly dependent on a migrant work force. Local laborers are uninterested or unavailable to work on farms; migrant laborers are eager to help us harvest the crop in the fall. Many seasonal farmworkers can earn more than $15 per hour, with housing provided.

The counter-argument to this position, raised by Lonsberry, is:

Forget this crap about illegals doing the jobs Americans won't do. Yes, welfare has gotten rid of most entry-level and low-skill American workers. But the reason farmers don't get local labor is because they don't pay enough. When an hour of hard manual labor involving a fair amount of specialized skill pays less than an hour of salting the fries at McDonald's you can't expect people to line up to work on your farm.

To evaluate these positions, let's first bring a few facts to bear. According to the Department of Labor, the average farm worker earned $7.25 per hour in 2001-2002, the last year when statistics were reported. Those paid by the piece averaged $8.27 per hour. During the same year, the average worker in "Leisure and Hospitality" earned roughly $8.57 per hour. "Retail Trade" workers made about $11.29. The overall average was $14.54, and construction workers made $18.00. So, Lonsberry is partly right: doing farm labor pays a little less, on average, than salting fries (a hospitality industry). It also pays a lot less than other relatively unskilled jobs (retail) and a whole lot less than other jobs that may involve a lot of manual labor (construction).

By the way, the $15 hourly wage cited by the Apple Farmers' Allen must be at the high end of the spectrum. Hourly wage growth since 2001-2002 was 15%. If farm wages grew at the same rate as other wages, the average farm worker doing piece work probably makes about $9.50, a far cry from $15/hr. I assume Allen's qualifiers ("Many" "can earn") signify that the average farm worker doesn't make that kind of coin. The finding that 30% of farm workers had family incomes below the federal poverty guideline in the most recent survey makes me even more skeptical about the $15 claim.

So, it looks like Lonsberry is right: farm jobs don't pay a competitive wage. But wages aren't the only thing that make jobs attractive. Let's dig a little deeper into the demographics of farm work.

According to the 2002 survey, the average age of farm workers was 33. Half of the farm workers surveyed were under the age of 31. Seventh-nine percent of the workers were men. Over half (57%) left their families to work. Why is that? Part of the reason is the flow of work:

The 13 million estimated migrant workers in the United States follow three general streams. In the East, workers begin in Florida and travel up through Ohio, New York and Maine, following crops that range from citrus to tobacco to blueberries. The Midwestern stream begins in Southern Texas and flows north through every state in the MidWest. Workers in the West begin their season in southern California and follow the coast to Washington state or veer inland to North Dakota.

This brings up another important, obvious point: farm work is seasonal. There's a tiny window of time where the farm worker is able to pull down $9.00/hr. The logistics of getting the right number of workers to the right place at the right time are difficult. That's why immigrant farm workers who perform harvest-related tasks tend to be employed by labor contractors. Someone needs to coordinate the movement of "follow the crop" farm laborers so they arrive when they're needed.

So farm work is seasonal, and farm workers have to migrate to stay employed. But it's easy to imagine that each state with seasonal crops could arrange for local unemployed workers to pick the crop. Lonsberry and commenters at the Democrat and Chronicle are arguing that if we raised wages for farm workers, we might lower the number of people on welfare in the area. To understand why this won't work, we need to look at the economic impact of farm employment.

Steuben County is the Southern Tier county that spends the most on farm labor. In 2002, Steuben's farmers spent $361K on farm contract labor. It's 2007, and farm workers are underpaid, so let's pick a number that reflects inflation and the raises necessary to attract local laborers: say, $700K. Assuming that every single worker who would do contract work on Steuben farms receives public assistance, how would that $700K impact Steuben's welfare rolls?

According to the Steuben County budget, in 2007, $63 million will be spent on economic assistance. $33 million of that will go towards DSS and Medicaid alone. $700K is a drop in that bucket. When you add federal assistance to the county total, it's unlikely that $700K is even one percent of what's spent on welfare in Steuben during a year.

Conservatives of the Lonsberry stripe hate welfare and they hate illegal immigration. The idea that throwing out immigrant farm labor will open up new jobs for welfare recipients is attractive in its simplicity. Yet, as the facts show, simplicity is its only virtue. At this point, it's time to quote H. L. Mencken:

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.

Comments usual.

Thanks for your analysis.

You can analayze this all you want but the simple fact of the matter is farmers can only afford to pay so much for farm labor. The economics of agriculture simply do not equate to high wage jobs at the farm given the fact farmers generally sell their commodities for sometimes less than the cost of production, i.e., milk. If farmers made more money, they could afford to pay their help better wages but that's not been the case historically. Couple this with high input costs for fuel and fertilizer, it's a wonder we have any farms left to even begin having this debate.

Countryboy, I think that was some of the point of his post -- that this idea that farmers are screwing everyone by hiring illegals doesn't hold water.

Countryboy - Tom is right - I have no beef with the farmers. I think farmers are paying a low wage, but it is the wage they can afford given the prices paid for their goods. I certainly don't think that farmers are making a mint on the backs of migrant workers.

The AgJobs bill addresses the issue of low wages in a fair way. Instead of the current situation, where illegals work for a few years and then go back to Mexico (or stay in the US illegally), the new bill would give them a path to citizenship. A hard-working immigrant can work legally for 5 years with a blue card and then graduate to a green card. The final compensation for hard work at low pay is a US citizenship. That's a big improvement on the current situation.

Other than the bill's partial amnesty, I don't see what's objectionable or "un-American" about this bill. Since it's based on hard work, it's a fair way to dole out a scarce good (citizenship), and it's a smart way, too, because it selects those who value hard work to become citizens. Seems like a win all around.