After living for some time in Central California, America’s top farming region – where more than 250 different fruits and vegetables are grown! – you can’t help but notice the disparities and imbalance.
On one side, the farmworkers, who often earn wages well below the poverty line – because farm labor is a seasonal occupation and because it pays little. Many (if not most) of the workers can’t get unemployment insurance due to lack of legal immigration status. As seasonal workers, they have no benefits, no health insurance or paid days off.
On the other side, the farmers, whose revenues have been growing steadily in the past few years – despite the recession and despite the drought. That’s right. As agriculture officials have often said, agriculture is one of the bright spots in our sagging economy. Alas, this bounty does not trickle down to the workers.
I wanted to drill down on this division in a more in-depth story. For half a year, I followed one farmworker family in Fresno County, the nation’s richest agricultural county. I visited them as they worked, lost jobs, struggled with health problems and with their children. I participated in family celebrations. My goal was to paint a picture of the divide at the heart of an agricultural region, a duality that has real impacts on the workers at the bottom.
Of course, farming can be a low-profit margin business. The costs of farming keep growing. Labor is a significant expense. And American consumers demand inexpensive food. Competitors in other countries pay workers even less, meaning their products are cheaper. American farmers don’t set food prices. In many ways, farmworkers’ poverty is ingrained in the very nature of agriculture – and has been so for centuries. For some farmworkers, most of whom are immigrants to this country, working in the fields can be a springboard to a better life. But for too many, it is a permanent, punishing situation – one which they pass on to their children.
We must continue to ask: Is this situation intractable? How can we improve the lives of farmworkers and those their children? What are the impacts of depression, isolation, of being worn down by circumstances? What role can education play? And, how much do we, as a society, owe to them? Lastly, what is the impact of leaving so many Latinos, one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic groups, in destitution – especially considering that Latinos will make up the vast majority of our future labor force?
Read “In nation’s breadbasket, Latinos stuck in poverty”. This story is part of an Associated Press series called ‘America at the Tipping Point: The Changing Face of a Nation.’