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The Employment Enigma

09/03/2018

As Congress faces reconciliation of the 2018 Farm Bill, it is appropriate to consider the problem of acquiring and retaining labor on U.S. farms. To be frank, we are reliant on workers from nations south of our border to work in produce fields, dairies, poultry farms and processing plants. The House version of the Farm Bill incorporates a mandatory work requirement for recipients of SNAP benefits, the Senate is opposed to this requirement although it is hoped that a compromise will be reached to enable passage of the bill. It is now obvious that an extension will be required, since existing legislation will expire in September.

In 1996, the Welfare Update mandated 80 hours of work or training for able-bodied adults 18-50. Non-compliant recipients were limited to three months of benefits. This provision was honored more in the breach than reality since states were allowed to exercise waivers.

The inner city areas have disproportionate unemployment rates and are heavily dependent on federal handouts. If those dependent on government programs to survive were to move to areas where there is a demand for labor, there would be a marked reduction in expenditure for SNAP and similar support programs.

Traditionally workers have moved to areas of opportunity. During the Great Depression, dispossessed farmers from the Dust Bowl relocated to California. More recently oil field workers displaced form the Gulf obtained work in new fields in North Dakota.

Congress has been slow to act on enabling legislation to provide H-    visa for foreign workers, especially those with both training and a desire to contribute to agricultural productivity.

In my work involving egg-production complexes, there is a dearth of available workers. Producers converting from conventional cages to aviaries recognize the need for additional labor, possibly in the region of two to three times that required for a flock of 150,000 to 250,000 caged hens. Standards for employment are steadily declining. Older workers with a strong work ethic are becoming more scarce. Substance abuse is a more important factor responsible for unreliability, carelessness and accidents.

Even if government policy allows more extensive use of foreign labor, it will be necessary to house immigrants. By the same token, acceptable housing will be required for labor moving from inner cities to rural areas. In addition to housing, it will be necessary to provide schooling and other services, altering the character of small towns which in any event are losing their traditional populations.

 

There are limits to mechanization and labor will always be required to produce food. The alternative to a rational immigration policy and encouraging relocation of U.S. citizens dependent on government support is self-evident. Agriculture is the nexus where immigration policy and welfare converge. Let us hope our legislators put aside ideology and address a growing problem which will restrict our ability to produce food.

It is evident that changes will be required in attitudes towards permanence of residency, acceptance of  “different” socio-economic groups and a redistribution of our population to address the need for agricultural labor.