Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Importing Poverty: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America by Philip Martin

I strongly recommend Philip Martin's book, Importing Poverty: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America, (2009, Yale University Press).  I just finished reading it, and believe it has a lot to say about the path to more sustainable and prosperous future for the Valley Economy.  Martin takes a dynamic approach to the issue of farm labor, and discusses the challenges of integration and how the farm labor treadmill creates long-term economic development challenges for the economy of the Central Valley.

Martin discusses the potential and the need for greater mechanization to keep American agriculture competitive and raise wages in the agriculture sector.  He is critical of past attempts at immigration reform and much of the agriculture industry's arguments for legalizing the status quo of a revolving door of cheap, foreign, unskilled labor.  In the final chapter, he discusses AgJobs, the controversial immigration reform proposal endorsed by the agriculture industry and farm workers. 

The AgJobs proposal would provide a path to legalization (green card) for immigrants who worked in agriculture for five years, fulfilling the desire of farmworker advocates for a path to legalization and the agriculture industry's desire for a low-cost foreign workforce by continuously replenishing the 1.4 million guest farm workers holding "blue cards".  In a sense, it legalizes the current farm labor treadmill.  In previous posts, I have criticized the deceptive way the agriculture industry has promoted the bill, but stopped short of completely opposing it.

Martin proposes an improvement to the AgJobs proposal to "regularize and rationalize" the farm labor market.  Employers would pay a payroll tax on the wages of "blue card" holders with the funds dedicated to two purposes: 1) mechanization research and development and 2) bonus payments for guest workers who choose to return to their home country at the end of five years instead of receiving a U.S. green card.  This would smooth the transition of the agriculture industry to a more capital and less labor-intensive future, reduce the flow, and resulting integration problem, of new low-skilled immigrants to rural communities, and should improve the situation of hard-working immigrant farm workers.  It is more costly for farmers than the current AgJobs proposal (especially in the short-run), but it is more fair and less costly on taxpayer and rural communities in the long-run.

Martin is an agricultural economics professor at UC-Davis, and I wish his ideas and research were receiving more discussion in the Valley.  I believe labor (not water) is the most crucial long-run agricultural issue in the Valley economy, and I would like to see more UC agricultural economists dedicate more resources to researching and searching for solutions in this area.

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