Planting Poverty

By Monica Heppel on July 1, 1998

A Review of Poverty Amid Prosperity: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural California, by J. Edward Taylor, Philip L. Martin, and Michael Fix (The Urban Institute Press, 1997)

pp. 14-15 in Immigration Review no. 32, Summer 1998

Poverty Amid Prosperity: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural California illustrates how immigration is transforming rural California and brings to the forefront the critical role that rural industries, in this case agriculture, play in today's immigration. Fueled by the expansion of seasonal, labor-intensive, low-wage agricultural jobs, a continuous stream of Mexican immigrants flows to rural California. The authors argue that this process, "[i]nitiated by U.S. recruitment..., sustained by poverty in rural Mexico, and managed by family and village networks" is re-creating a perpetual, foreign-born underclass. Pockets of poverty are being created as the socio-economic gap between workers and employers widens and the availability of public services decreases.

Focusing on seasonal farmworkers in California, the authors draw on many themes that farm labor and immigration researchers have previously identified. These include the growth and economic success of the fresh fruit and vegetable industry during a time when it has become reliant on low-wage immigrant labor, the role of social networks in incorporating and supporting new immigrants, the increasing "latinization" of rural America, the distinctive features of a new form of rural poverty, and the importance of examining immigrant policy (how immigrants are integrated once in the country) as well as immigration policy (controlling who enters the country). At its best, Poverty Amid Prosperity weaves these themes into a logical and readable synthesis.

In addition to integrating previous findings into an articulate whole, this book also makes two contributions to the body of farm labor research. The first is a study designed to address the question of whether low-wage agricultural jobs and immigration are fueling poverty and public assistance demands in 65 rural California towns. The answer to this question is sought by analyzing 1990 U.S. Census data and includes a clear explanation of the study design, which allows such analysis to be replicated elsewhere. It shows a strong correlation between levels of farm employment and poverty and that a higher average family income correlates with an increase in the number of persons in poverty, indicating that income growth in these towns is bypassing the poor. Finally, the study shows that, while increased poverty increases welfare demands, immigrants are less likely than natives to receive welfare income. The problems inherent in using census data as a source of information on farmworkers are not discussed in the chapter, however. The serious undercount of farmworkers in the U.S. Census has been clearly documented and should be addressed in an econometric model that relies exclusively on this data set.

The second important contribution of this book is the introduction of several papers and case studies to a wider readership than might otherwise be the case. Specific highlights from seven community studies in rural California as well as three papers on other aspects of the farm labor market are presented and clearly illustrate some of the social and economic dynamics within immigrant-receiving farm labor communities. Such dynamics include previous patterns of upward mobility among immigrant groups, competition between established and new Mexican immigrant groups for the more stable agricultural jobs, the role of social networks in facilitating immigration, the roles that established immigrants play in integrating new immigrants into the workplace, and the movement of farmworkers' children into nonfarm jobs. The papers also identify structural changes in the farm labor market that are related to a continuing supply of new immigrant workers — a shift from piece rates to hourly wages, which results in lower earnings; an increasing reliance on farm labor contractors; and a restructuring of production that entails an increase in the proportion of short-term jobs. Finally, the papers illustrate changes in the rural communities resulting from housing conflicts and increased socio-economic stratification, exemplified by poorly paid immigrant farmworkers clustered in isolated colonias. It is the creation of these enclaves of poverty, surrounded by evidence of large-scale agriculture's increasing prosperity, that ties these case studies together and to the book's theme.

The community studies also illustrate how these dynamics have led to a situation that differs dramatically from our historical understanding of rural poverty. "Traditionally, rural poverty has been viewed as the result of inevitable agricultural decline combined with cyclical crises that force farms into a downward spiral from which they rarely rebound.... In California today, rural poverty occurs in an environment of agricultural prosperity, in the context of a growth industry." Clearly, policies and programs designed to alleviate rural poverty must take this new reality into account.

The final section of the book attempts to address the policy implications of these research findings. It lays a strong groundwork by recognizing the importance of focusing on immigrant rather than immigration policies and by presenting the problems with three existing categories of immigrant policy: targeted assistance programs directed toward newcomers, legislatively or administratively set rules of eligibility for needs-based mainstream service programs, and court-made rules regarding the rights and entitlements of noncitizens.

Despite the clear exposition of current policies and proposed legislation, however, the book falls short of creatively discussing new solutions or relating current policies to on-the-ground reality. For example, federal programs designed to assist migrant farmworkers are identified, yet there is no discussion of the extent to which new immigrants use (or are eligible for) such programs and thus no discussion of their utility in addressing the "new rural poverty" previously identified; information that would have provided depth comparable to that shown in the previous sections. While the authors are to be commended for attempting to integrate research findings with policy discussion, they seldom overcome the difficulties of maintaining a bridge between a policy discussion on the macro level and the implications of such policies on the micro level, or the even more difficult task of deriving insights from micro-level studies to enlighten policy debate at the macro level. Fortunately, their attempt presents much valuable information, both at the policy and the community studies level. More importantly, the themes that the authors clearly identify and emphasize in this book are precisely the ones that should be critical elements guiding an informed discussion of U.S. immigration policy and the working poor.

A final note of criticism is that, despite its academic tone, there is a disconcerting lack of citations throughout the text while the "References" section includes significantly more items than are actually referred to in the book. Readers seeking additional information or verification of a particular issue are seldom guided in the proper direction.

Despite these criticisms, the book is a useful and thought-provoking analysis of the changing face of rural communities and a good, basic description of existing policies shaping immigration to rural areas. The authors have made a major contribution by bringing forward the overwhelming evidence of a range of binational ties that are supplying the economy of rural America with Mexican-born workers and communities in rural America with Mexican-born residents.

Immigration Reading

Migration and Crime: Proceedings of the International Conference on Migration and Crime: Global and Regional Problems and Responses contains 32 papers from the October 1996 conference in Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy, and was edited by Alex P. Schmid and Irene Melup. For information, contact the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council (ISPAC) of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme at: 39-2-86460714 (phone), 39-2-72008431 (fax), or by e-mail at [email protected]

The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in New York recently published three working papers related to immigration: "Education's Hispanic Challenge," by Georges Vernez, Working Paper No. 228; "E Pluribus Unum: Bilingualism and Language Loss in the Second Generation," by Alejandro Portes and Lingxin Hao, Working Paper No. 229; and "The Romance of Assimilation: Studying the Demographic Outcomes of Ethnic Intermarriage in American History," by Joel Perlmann, Working Paper No. 230. The publications can be ordered through Levy's Web site at

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta also has published two working papers related to immigration: "The Effects of Official English Laws on Limited-English-Proficient Workers," Working Paper 98-4, and "Determinants of Recent Immigrants' Locational Choices," Working Paper 98-3, both by Madeline Zavodny of the bank. The full text of both papers may be downloaded in PDF format from:

"Immigrant Quality and Assimilation: A Review of the U.S. Literature," by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University, and "Immigration, Assimilation, and Growth," by John T. Durkin, Jr., of Wayne State University, are included in the most recent issue of The Journal of Population Economics, edited at SELAPO (Center for Human Resources) at the University of Munich. For more information, contact the journal at: [email protected]

Monica Heppel is Research Director at the Inter-American Institute on Migration and Labor.