As happens every few years, there is a renewed push to bring more farm workers to the United States. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reads like a press release from the agriculture lobby. But real wages for farm workers show very modest increases in recent years — even open borders advocates agree it's less than 1 percent a year adjusted for inflation — and this is strong evidence there is no shortage. Plus, even if there is a shortage one can reasonably ask why that would be bad. A tight labor market would exert upward pressure on wages for what is very difficult, low-paying work done in the hot sun.
Raising wages to attract more Americans (native-born and legal immigrants) and mechanizing planting and harvesting is a far better solution than bringing in more workers because there is a very high cost to cheap farm labor. The tables below show that 67 percent of households headed by immigrant farm workers receive some form of welfare — almost triple the rate for the typical native-headed household. There is nothing particularly surprising about this, as the vast majority of these farm workers have modest levels of education and prior research shows that less-educated immigrants (and natives) make extensive use of welfare. Working seasonally for $8 to $14 an hour makes workers eligible to collect many, if not most, welfare programs if they have children; and 85 percent of households headed by immigrant agriculture workers do have children.
The low wages of agricultural jobs also mean that many of these workers are quite poor. Of adult immigrant workers in agriculture, the tables show that 28 percent are in poverty and 68 percent have incomes below 200 percent of poverty. Looking at those with incomes under 200 percent of poverty is a good benchmark to measure the impact on public coffers because that is the level below which there is typically no income tax liability, and it is where eligibility for many welfare programs often begins. Even starker, 42 percent of children in households headed by immigrant agricultural workers are growing up in poverty and 78 percent live in households with incomes below 200 percent of poverty. So importing less-educated foreign workers does not just increase current welfare costs, it has long-term consequences for American society.
Immigrant agricultural workers already in the United States have 361,000 school age children. Assuming the national average per-student expenditure means that taxpayers already spend some $4 billion annually to educate the children of these workers. There is no possibility that these households can come close to paying enough in taxes to cover the costs of education they create. Adding thousands more students from low-income households that will make very modest tax payments does not make sense for American taxpayers or for the already strained schools in low-income rural areas — no matter how much employers in the agriculture sector wish to hold down wages.
Instead we should try to draw some of the less-educated natives who are currently not working into agriculture. There were 30 million working-age (18 to 65) people in the country in the second quarter of 2015 with no education beyond high school not working (unemployed or out of the labor market). Adding just 1 or 2 percent (300,000 to 600,000) of these individuals to the existing farm workforce would satisfy any labor needs of farmers as the entire agricultural labor force is only about one million. Attracting more people into farm work would require higher wages and improved working conditions, which would benefit both workers and society. Importing poverty by tolerating illegal immigration or allowing in more legal unskilled workers would only benefit farm owners. Mechanization, which also avoids importing poverty, is probably the most important solution to any farm labor shortage. History shows that farmers mechanized (reducing their labor needs) as the Bracero labor program with Mexico ended in the 1960s. This trend slowed when illegal immigration picked up.
It may be that farmers can't find enough workers given what they want to pay and how they want to treat workers. But bringing in unskilled immigrant workers rather than raising wages and mechanizing creates significant costs and problems that are borne by society as a whole. What may be a good deal for employers in the farm sector is not a good deal for taxpayers, American workers, schools, or the country as a whole.