Economy & Business

Farm Lobby: Our Workers Don’t Deserve Higher Wages

Migrant farm workers in Holtville, Calif. (John Moore/Getty)
A new industry report is unusually blunt about immigration’s winners and losers.

Imagine being told that real (inflation-adjusted) wages for field and crop workers have grown at an annual rate of 0.6 percent over the past twelve years. You may consider this good news, since most other workers have seen minimal raises over the same period. Still, it will probably strike you as a relatively small increase for such arduous work, especially given that the average field wage is still just $11 per hour. It may seem to you that low-skill labor is insufficiently rewarded in today’s economy.

But your reaction is completely off-base, according to the farm lobby. In its view, these 0.6 percent raises are alarming increases in the cost of labor, and wages must be held down by bringing in more immigrants.

That is the explicit message of a new report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business groups that advocates expanded immigration. Titled “A Vanishing Breed,” the report claims to document a decline in the supply of farm workers and the subsequent wage increases that farmers have been forced to offer. It concludes with a call for a more robust guest-worker program.

The rise of indirect employment via labor contractors complicates the analysis, but let’s leave aside the data for now. More interesting is just how blunt — perhaps inadvertently blunt — the report is about immigration’s winners and losers.

The report is clear about the farm lobby’s desire to keep wages low by increasing the supply of labor. It describes wage increases as “a strain on many U.S. farms” that other industries have managed to avoid. It shows that real wages for food preparers, housekeepers, cashiers, and other low-skill workers outside farming have decreased since 2002. The reason, according to the report, is that “employers in non-agricultural industries have been able to find enough workers to fill job vacancies without upward pressure on wages.” Farm owners wish they had the same privilege.

The report goes on to cite one farmer’s frustration with his inability to recruit enough workers despite offering compensation “higher than the starting wage at the local Wal-Mart or Starbucks.” The assumption that serving lattes to hipsters is the market equivalent of stoop labor says a lot about the farm lobby’s mindset. They simply do not want to pay a wage premium to compensate for the physically demanding nature of the labor they need.

The assumption that serving lattes to hipsters is the market equivalent of stoop labor says a lot about the farm lobby’s mindset.

Of course, there is nothing surprising about businesses’ trying to maximize profits; that’s the whole reason businesses exist. But the frankness of this report brings into focus some fundamental immigration trade-offs. By reducing wages, open immigration would indeed put fruits and vegetables on store shelves for a lower price. Granted, the portion of the retail price that currently goes to farm labor is small; one estimate put it at just 10 percent, which means that lower wages have only a minor impact on the retail price, even accounting for changes in consumer behavior. Nevertheless, the savings are real, and they come from the efficiency afforded by unrestricted farm labor.

Now consider the costs. Low-skill workers, already struggling in our high-tech economy, would feel an even greater squeeze. Living standards for the middle class and the working class would further diverge, increasing social tensions.

New immigrant workers and their children would also use government services. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 67 percent of households headed by immigrant farm workers use some form of welfare, with a majority on Medicaid and food assistance. An estimated 78 percent of the children in those households live in or near poverty. New immigration increases not just the cost of social services but also the political base of support for those programs, since welfare spending becomes more difficult to roll back as the number of recipients increases.

In fairness to the farmers, labor-force participation rates have declined precipitously among native men over the past several decades. Recruiting them for work can be legitimately hard, and it is not just because of the competition they face from immigrants. Something has happened to the work ethic of low-skill Americans that needs to be addressed. But importing workers to take their place merely papers over the problem, allowing it to fester out of sight.

These issues should be at the forefront of our political discourse on immigration. Unfortunately, immigration boosters often disguise the trade-offs, falsely portraying immigration as a boon to all workers. (The farm lobby evidently disagrees.) And politicians are typically hesitant to stake out a controversial position on anything, let alone an issue as emotionally charged as immigration. Here is where the Donald Trump candidacy has struck a chord. Trump’s pronouncements on immigration, hyperbolic as they are, have at least forced other candidates to answer questions about an issue they hoped to downplay. If the end result is a sober discussion of immigration’s pros and cons, the country will be better for it.

— Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and contributor to National Review Online.