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January 2004 Volume 10 Number 1
Midwest: Demographic Change
Copley News Service on November 20, 2003 profiled Beardstown, Illinois,<< back
a city of 7,000 famous for the Beardstown Ladies Investment Club.
Hispanics are poised to become the majority of residents, largely
because the major employer, an Excel pork processing plant, began to
hire them. A third of the 1,400 K-12 students are Hispanic, and some
non-Hispanic whites have left what they call a "Mexican town" on the
The Beardstown pork plant, 45 miles west of the Illinois capital of
Springfield, was closed by Oscar Mayer in 1986, displacing over 800
workers and threatening the viability of the city of 5,200. Excel
reopened the plant in 1987 and, in a sign of the town's eagerness for
jobs, privately owned Excel parent Cargill was allowed to receive state
tax benefits without opening its books to scrutiny under a special
exception to tax subsidy rules.
Excel reduced the starting wage from Oscar Mayer's $8.75 to $6.50 an
hour, hired only 250 former Oscar Mayer workers and, after workers
compensation costs and worker turnover rose in the 1990s, began to
recruit workers in the Rio Grande Valley. Workers with documents who
could pass a drug test got a $400 advance and a bus ticket to
Beardstown, and current workers who brought new workers got $150 for
each worker who stayed at least three months.
Tensions rose with the number of Hispanics, many of whom came from rural
areas and were not prepared to obey laws on everything from having auto
insurance to cutting their grass. Parents with little education were
advised by some ESL staffers to keep their children in bilingual
classes, and some did, only to have the children later regret their lack
After ICE agents arrested several residents for selling false IDs, mayor
Bob Walters said that Excel "plays in the gray area. They don't violate
the law, but they sure don't play by the book, either." Excel says it
"follows the government's I-9 requirements for verifying employment
eligibility." Walters asked ICE to check the status of Excel plant
workers, saying ICE "could come down here on any given day and put up a
roadblock and Excel would have trouble operating the plant," but there
have been no immigration inspections at the plant since 1995.
Beardstown, the series concluded, is "propped up by one major employer,
a partially undocumented work force and uneasy residents."
Cleaning up meatpacking plants is especially unpopular work usually
reserved for the most recent arrivals because the work must be done at
night using chemicals that scar the skin. In half of the plants, the
starting wage paid by the outside cleaning contractors is $6.50 an hour,
and many workers report that they have forged documents- with better
documents, they would be working for higher wages during regular shifts
on the "dis-assembly lines."
The three major contract cleaners of meat and poultry processing plants
are National Service Company, DCS Sanitation Management and BMS Contract
Services. One retired manager said that the contract cleaners allow the
meatpackers to "offload the risk to somebody else" of accidents, which
can happen if machines are not turned off before being cleaned.
Meatpacking is considered the most dangerous US occupation, and thus is
targeted by OSHA, but cleaning companies are included with janitors and
maids, which has a much lower overall injury rate.
OSHA has lockout/tagout rules for cleaning industrial equipment,
equivalent to turning off the circuit breaker in a house and locking it
off; on cleaning crews, each worker has his own lock. However, workers
under pressure to finish cleaning so that the plant can resume early
morning work sometimes do not follow lockout/tagout rules, saying that
it is far more common to be fired for failing to work fast enough than
for failing to follow safety procedures.
Depopulation. Rural counties in the Midwest are losing people because of
fewer and larger farms and Wal-Mart, which reduces the local share of
retail sales. Over the past 50 years, rural counties- those without a
city of at least 2,500 people - lost more than a third of their people
in 11 Great Plains states, with farm-based counties away from interstate
highways losing the most people. In the 99 US counties with the highest
percentage of residents older than 85, all but two are in the Great
Plains, and a Nebraska survey found that only 11 percent of residents in
small towns were satisfied with where they lived.
Superior, Nebraska, "An oasis of the Great Plains, in the middle of
everywhere," has 2,000 residents, and is struggling to maintain its
population. The New York Times on December 1, 2003 reported that some
of the small towns on the Great Plains that have been losing people for
70 years are showing signs of despair and breakdown, as teens turn to
drugs, leaving "pockets of hard poverty amid large agribusinesses
supported by taxpayers."
The Corrections Corporation of America and other private firms have
built 200 prisons in rural towns around the US, housing prisoners for
the federal and state governments, and creating jobs in areas that
welcomed them. When the prison closes, as one in Sayre, Oklahoma did,
jobs are lost and population decline can resume.
The rural Midwest includes many users of methamphetamine, a powerful
manufactured stimulant that produces bursts of energy and euphoria but
can lead to depression, violent paranoia and brain damage, and leads to
increased crime as users lose jobs but need to support their habit. One
of meth's main ingredients, anhydrous ammonia, is an agricultural
fertilizer in abundant supply in rural areas. Most sources say that
migrant meatpackers introduced and continue to deal the drug, since its
effects last eight to 16 hours and, "meth helps you stay up longer and
Many of the small towns aiming to attract more jobs have built
industrial parks, but most are empty- production costs are lower in
China and elsewhere. Instead, rural businesses say that they are hard-
pressed to keep going, and that "there is no plan for the next
generation." One of four people in 4,800-resident Nuckolls County,
where Superior is the county seat, is older than 65. Those who stay in
rural areas with declining populations seem to trade lower earnings for
family and a rural lifestyle, with decentralized, informal systems
involving extended families delivering services rather than growing
communities with government services and large employers.
A 96,000 hog farm was built on the Sioux Rosebud reservation in 1998 to
reduce unemployment and avoid South Dakota restrictions on corporate
farms, but it has led to controversy, with Indian employees complaining
of poor working conditions. The privately owned farm was supposed to
pay 25 percent of its profits to the tribe, but said there were few
Fox Butterfield, "Across the Rural Midwest, Drug Casts a Grim Shadow,"
New York Times, January 4, 2004. Timothy Egan, "Amid Dying Towns of
Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand," New York Times, December 1, 2003. S.
Lynne Walker, "Heartland finds new ways to deal with newcomers," Copley
News Service, November 20, 2003. Jeremy Olson, Steve Jordon, "The job
of last resort Meat plant risks extend to nightly cleanup work," Omaha
World Herald, October 12, 2003.