What Federal Statistics Reveal about Migrant Farmworkers:
A Summary for Education. ERIC Digest.
by Huang, Gary G.
To help educators quickly grasp demographic information and social and
economic issues facing migrant farmworkers, this Digest summarizes several
recent federal reports. Some reports cover the overall agricultural labor
force, using terms such as "hired" or "paid farmworkers," "agricultural
workers," "crop workers," or "migrant farmworkers." These terms overlap
to a large extent and generally refer to a socially and economically disadvantaged
group of Latino migratory farmworkers. We shift terms in this Digest to
accommodate definitions used in the following sources:
* "National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS)," a national survey conducted
by the Department of Labor that collects data about paid farmworkers (Samardick,
Gabbard, & Lewis, 2000)
* "Current Population Survey (CPS)," conducted by the Census Bureau,
which includes up-to-date demographic data about farmworkers
@ "Farm Labor Survey (FLS)," conducted four times a year by the National
Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
which gathers information on agricultural occupations, including migrant
IMMIGRATION STATUS, AGE, AND GENDER
According to the most recent "NAWS" (fiscal year 1997-98), approximately
56 percent of U.S. farmworkers were migrants who traveled more than 75
miles to do crop work. Of this portion, 17 percent were "follow-the-crop
migrants" who had two or more farm jobs located more than 75 miles apart,
and 39 percent were "shuttle migrants" whose farm jobs were more than 75
miles away from their residences (Mehta et al., 2000). While a majority
of farmworkers had a home base in the United States, 42 percent had their
homes outside the United States, primarily in Mexico. Migrant farmworkers
were younger than nonmigrant farmworkers, with a median age of 26 for follow-the-crop
migrants, 27 for shuttle migrants, and over 31 for nonmigrants. While the
1997-98 "NAWS" report did not provide the migrant population size, the
1994 report estimated that 1.6 million out of the 2.5 million farmworkers
were seasonal agricultural workers and that 670,000 (37 percent of all
farmworkers) were migrant farmworkers (Gabbard, Mines, & Boccalandro,
1994). The 1999-2002 FLS quarterly estimates show much lower percentages
for migrant farmworkers, ranging from 6 percent in January 1999 to 12.4
percent in July 1999 (NASS, 2002). (The discrepancy may have several causes,
including the different definitions of migrants; NASS defines them as farmworkers
whose employment requires travel that prevents them from returning to their
permanent place of residence the same day.)
"NAWS" data revealed that most farmworkers (81 percent) were foreign
born, a 1990s demographic change in rural areas known as "Latinization."
Migrant farmworkers were more likely to be foreign born (nine out of ten)
relative to nonmigrants (only two thirds). More than half of farmworkers
(52 percent) were unauthorized workers, and only 22 percent were citizens.
Of the work-authorized farmworkers, 40 percent were citizens by birth;
the rest acquired residence under the special agricultural worker program,
family reunification programs, or other legal immigrant channels (Mehta
et al., 2000).
Farmworkers in general were young (79 percent between the ages of 18
and 44) and male (80 percent). Slightly more than half of the population
was married, but many did not live with their nuclear families. Married
males were less likely to live with their families than married females.
Most women (more than 90 percent) lived with their children, but less than
half of fathers (42 percent) were able to do so. A substantial portion
of farmworker families (about 45 percent) had children, but only half of
parents lived with children (Mehta et al., 2000). Thus, mothers play a
major role in migrant farmworker children's education.
The most recent report on farmworkers' demographics from the Census'
"CPS" report confirmed the "NAWS" description. "CPS" had no specific data
about "migrant" farmworkers; and some statistical discrepancies were inevitable
if directly comparing "CPS" with "NAWS." Nevertheless, farmworkers' basic
characteristics were similar as portrayed in the two sources. Compared
with all wage and salary workers, "CPS" data showed that hired farmworkers
were predominantly Latino, young, unmarried, poorly educated, and noncitizens;
and many such characteristics remained largely unchanged throughout the
1990s (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2000).
WORK AND INCOME
Migrant farmworkers are a critical component of the U.S. agricultural
production system, comprising 55 percent of the short-term farm-task labor
force, 64 percent of the harvest labor force, and 45 percent of the peak
season labor force (Gabbard et al., 1994). Despite its importance, this
population continues to struggle in a highly unstable and oversupplied
agricultural labor market. According to the 1994 "NAWS" estimation, on
average, migrants worked only 29 weeks per year. The situation worsened
in later years, especially for newly arrived migrants. In the 1997-98 fiscal
year, on average, migrant farmworkers with one year of experience in the
United States worked only 17 weeks per year (Mehta et al., 2000).
According to "NAWS," migrant farmworkers' income in general declined,
even during the 1990s economic boom. Between 1989 and 1998 the average
real hourly wage of farmworkers, adjusted for inflation, fell by 11 percent
(Mehta et al., 2000). It is striking to observe this group's declining
earnings amid rural revival and rising income levels of nonfarm jobs during
the 1990s (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 1997).
Nearly three quarters of farmworkers earned less than $10,000 a year and
three out of five farmworker families lived in poverty (Mehta et al., 2000).
Poverty rose from 54 percent for migrant farmworkers in 1994 (Gabbard et
al., 1994) to at least 61 percent, the rate for the entire farmworker population
(Mehta et al., 2000). Other indicators of economic well-being, such as
car and home ownership, showed a consistent declining pattern for the population.
The "CPS" data confirmed this portrayal of persistent low income and
poverty among hired farmworkers. In 1999, of the estimated 585,000 hired
farmworkers 25 years and older, 47 percent had an income that was under
the poverty line. The proportion of full-time low-wage earners in hired
farmworkers was greater than in all other occupations except workers for
private households and nonprotective services (U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Economic Research Service, 2000).
EMPLOYER BENEFITS AND SOCIAL SERVICES
Migrant farmworkers received very limited employee benefits. According
to "NAWS," in the 1997-98 fiscal year, only 15 percent of hired farmworkers
reported receiving monetary bonuses from employers; 45 percent were covered
by unemployment insurance; and only 28 percent of all farmworkers reported
workers' compensation in some form (17 percent simply did not know whether
they had such benefits).
Even facing all the socioeconomic disadvantages, farmworkers rarely
used social services. The 1997-98 "NAWS" found that only one fifth of farmworkers
or their family members received unemployment insurance benefits in the
past 2 years, and barely 1 percent used disability or social security benefits.
The use of needs-based services was low among hired farmworkers. Needs-based
services include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), general
assistance or welfare, publicly subsidized housing or medical and nutritional
assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid. In 1997-98, only 17 percent of farmworkers
used such services. The 1997-98 "NAWS" also revealed that few farmworkers
had received support from churches, family, community organizations, and
friends. "NAWS" offered no information about services provided by public
schools, such as subsidized lunches and remedial English instruction to
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
The 1997-98 "NAWS" shows that Spanish was the native language for most
farmworkers (84 percent). Education was low in this population, with a
median of 6th grade schooling. Only 15 percent completed high school. Most
farmworkers (73 percent) received their education in Mexico, only 21 percent
were educated in the United States, and the former group's median schooling
was low relative to the latter (6th vs. 11th grade).
One in five farmworkers had taken some adult education programs, including
GED and English. Only a small portion of them had attended college or university
classes (3 percent) or other classes such as citizenship, job training,
and adult basic education (3 percent). Adult education participation appeared
to be related to previous schooling: The more years of schooling received,
the higher the rate of adult education participation (Mehta et al., 2000).
The 1997-98 "NAWS" indicated high rates of illiteracy in this population
(completely illiterate at 20 percent, functionally illiterate at 38 percent,
and marginally literate at 27 percent). English proficiency levels varied
by birthplace and ethnicity. Mexican-born and other foreign-born Latino
farmworkers had extremely low rates of English fluency (2-4 percent).
YOUNG FARMWORKERS AND CHILDREN OF FARMWORKERS
By interviewing children aged 14 to 17 and parents working at farms,
the "NAWS" gathered data for two groups: young farmworkers and children
of farmworkers. The summary of the 1993-1998 data revealed that approximately
7 percent of all farmworkers were between the ages of 14 to 17, equivalent
to 126,000 children who did farm work in that period (Samardick et al.,
2000). Most of these young farmworkers were males, 16 or 17 years old,
who were born in the United States; and more than half (54 percent) of
them did not live with their parents. The young farmworkers were less likely
to migrate than the adult population (36 percent vs. 51 percent). It should
be noted, however, that the teenage subsample in "NAWS" included some children
of rural middle-class families who participated in seasonal fieldwork.
Minors working in agriculture were paid even less than their adult counterparts.
According to the NAWS data for 1993-98, teens were more prevalent in the
lowest-wage jobs. While 23 percent of adults earned minimum wage or less,
30 percent of teen farmworkers did so. Forty percent of adults and 50 percent
of teens were paid between minimum wage and $1 more than minimum wage.
Adults were almost twice as likely to have the higher-paying jobs. About
2 in 5 adults (37 percent) made more than $1 over the minimum wage, compared
with only 1 in 5 minors.
While most farmworkers were foreign-born, their children (73 percent)
were mostly born in the United States. The children of farmworkers in general
did not do farm work with their parents, primarily because of their young
age (83 percent under 14). Migrants' children, however, were more likely
to work in the fields than settled farmworkers children.
U.S.-born Hispanics accounted for only 12 percent of farmworkers, but
80 percent of this subgroup were children of farmworkers (Gabbard et al.,
1994). Most U.S.-born children of Hispanic farmworkers did not do farm
jobs and expected to leave farm work in the future; only 5 percent of this
subgroup did some farm work at a given time. An implication is that international
migration will continue to replenish the U.S. agricultural labor force.
"NAWS" further showed young farmworkers' education to be at risk. More
than a third were school dropouts, while 17 percent of them went to school
at a grade level lower than their age peers. Likewise, farmworkers' children
were educationally disadvantaged. One quarter of school-aged children of
farmworkers were behind in grade or had dropped out of school. Working
in the fields imposed even greater risk to children of farmworkers, with
more than a third falling behind their grade level or dropping out of school.
During the 1990s there were few signs of improvement in the social,
economic, or educational status of migrant farmworkers. However, their
U.S.-born children did not appear to be locked into the same employment
patterns as their parents. Even though grade retention and dropout rates
among this group were high, as indicated in the NAWS study, it appears
by deduction that the large majority "were" keeping up with their grade
level or were managing to make it through high school. However, it is hard
to know with any certainty how well they are doing because it has been
more than 10 years since migrant student educational achievement and attainment
have been studied (National Commission on Migrant Education, 1992). With
federal efforts underway to leave no child behind, a new study could provide
essential information to U.S. educators as they plan educational reform
for this marginalized group of students.
Gabbard, S., Mines, R., & Boccalandro, B. (1994). Migrant farmworkers:
Pursuing security in an unstable labor market. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Labor. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy.
Mehta, K., Gabbard, S. M., Barrat, V., Lewis, M., Carroll, D., &
Mines, R. (2000). Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey
(NAWS), 1997-1998: A demographic and employment profile of United States
farmworkers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 446 887)
National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). (2002). Farm labor.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved November 12,
2002, from http://jan.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/other/pfl-bb/2002/fmla0
National Commission on Migrant Education. (1992). Invisible children:
A portrait of migrant education in the United States. Final report. Washington,
DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 348 206)
Samardick, R., Gabbard, S. M., & Lewis, M. A. (2000). Youth employment
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labor force: Revised (pp. 52-57). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2000). Almost
half of hired farmworkers 25 years and older earn poverty-level wages.
Rural Conditions and Trends, 11(2), 47-50.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (1997). Rural
areas show signs of revitalization: Overview. Rural Conditions and Trends,