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Living at the Edge: Mexican Origin Farm Workers in Rural California-- Don Villarejo
Don Villarejo, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 381
Davis, CA 95617
Health Care Access in California’s Mexican Immigrant Communities................. 2
MSSA Name...................... 3
Population (1990)........... 3
Hispanic Farm Operators 5
Civic Participation – Voting...................... 6
Table 2. Immigrant Voters in Farm Worker MSSAs, 1996 General Election 6
The California Agriculture Worker Health Survey-1999...................... 7
Discussion and Conclusions................. 10
Appendix I. Places or Communities within “Farm Worker MSSAs”... 10
Zip Code. 11
Population (1990)......... 11
The recent release of new survey data by the BLS demonstrates that the immigrant share of the total U.S. labor force continues to increase, and has now reached 12%. Undocumented immigrants are estimated to comprise about 32% of immigrant employment, and now total some 5 million workers.
California is extraordinary regarding the extent to which foreign-born residents are a source of population and economic growth. The latest data suggests that an astounding 25% of the current population of the state is foreign-born. The largest share of these new residents are persons who have migrated to California from Mexico. They, and the California-born children of foreign-born residents, now make up the bulk of the state’s annual population growth.
This paper examines factors pertaining to the integration of Mexican immigrants into rural California. First, access to health care, educational attainment, and economic integration in rural areas of the state are examined using recent administrative data. Then, voting participation is examined. Finally, previously unpublished findings from the California Agricultural Worker Health Survey (1999) are reported that address household structure, housing conditions and educational attainment.
Health Care Access in California’s Mexican Immigrant Communities
California’s Rural Health Policy Council, created by the state’s Department of Health Services, has initiated study of health care access in communities throughout the state using a recently defined measure of “community”: the Medical Service Study Area (MSSA). Composed of an aggregate of several Census Tracts, an MSSA is a geographic region within which most residents normally seek health care services. Thus, an MSSA is larger than a Census Tract but smaller than a county.
Altogether, California has 487 MSSAs, and each contains, on average, twelve Census Tracts. Most MSSAs are located in urbanized areas, reflecting the concentration of the state’s population in these areas. However, 210 MSSAs are rural, following the definition adopted by the RHPC:
“Rural areas are Medical Service Study Areas…, as defined by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, that have a population density of less than 250 persons per square mile and have no incorporated community with a population greater than 50,000 persons.”
Of the 210 rural MSSAs, 23 have a population that is at least 50% Hispanic. Detailed examination of 1990 Census Tract data for these roughly two dozen MSSAs shows that employment in Agriculture, Forestry or Fishing accounted for 35% of all reported employment.
These rural, Hispanic MSSAs had a total enumerated population of 464,107 persons in 1990, and also had an aggregate of 55,378 persons who reported that they worked in agriculture, forestry or fishing. From a review of the location of these MSSAs, it should be obvious that the latter two industries do not have a significant presence in any: these are farm workers, mostly hired farm workers. On this basis, the 23 rural and heavily Hispanic MSSAs can be characterized as “Farm Worker MSSAs.” They are further described in Table 1.
More recent data suggest that these are rapidly growing communities. There are 60 geographic places within them, and 29 of these are incorporated cities (see Appendix I). Using the California Department of Finance estimates of city populations as of January 1, 2000, these 29 cities had a combined population of 384,440, which compares with 273,846 as of 1990. Thus, the population growth within the 29 incorporated cities amounted to an estimated 40.4% over the roughly ten-year period. This should be compared with the recent Census report that California’s total population grew by just 13.8%. By this measure, the “Farm Worker MSSAs” grew at three times the rate of the state’s population as a whole.
The data presented in Table 1 are mostly based on the findings of the 1990 Census of Population and Housing but does include the most recent determination of the Index of Medical Underservice (IMU), a Federally-defined index that is a careful statistical mix of several measures of health care service. These include the number of primary care physicians per 1,000 population, the fraction of the population in poverty and other factors that are known to affect access to medical care. The most important part of the IMU definition is that it is used nationally to serve as a single measure of the adequacy of health care service in a given community. Therefore, it can be used to identify communities where health care services are officially deemed to be inadequate.
The threshold value of the IMU for possible designation of a community as medically underserved is 62.0. Other factors, beyond the IMU value, are also considered, but this indicator is a necessary requirement for such a designation.
Table 1. Farm Worker Medical Service Study Areas.
MSSA Name Percent Hispanic (1990)
Gonzales et al
Firebaugh et al
Arabia et al
Chiriaco et al
San Joaquin et al
Planada et al
Arvin et al
Brawley et al
Del Rey et al
McFarland et al
Dinuba et al
Shafter et al
Earlimart et al
Fillmore et al
Centerville et al
Fowler et al
Five of the “Farm Worker MSSAs” have no primary care physician offering services at all. Figure 2 shows the number of primary care physicians per 1,000 residents for the same set of categories as in Figure 1. The disparity between urban and rural is a factor of two by this measure. But it is a factor of three between urban and “Farm Worker MSSAs.”
Figure 3 shows the faction of MSSAs lacking any primary care physicians, perhaps the most serious lack of access imaginable. Again, the “Farm Worker MSSAs” stand out.
These measures of access to medical care clearly suggest that hired farm workers in these communities are likely to be at serious disadvantage as compared with urban and most rural residents of the state. In a separate paper, the findings of the California Agriculture Worker Health Survey (CAWHS) regarding access to medical services are discussed. The CAWHS findings also support the conclusion that hired farm workers are disadvantaged with regard to access to medical care.
The set of communities identified above as “Farm Worker MSSAs” served as the basis for exploring educational attainment and educational progress among the families of Mexicans who have migrated to the U.S. to perform hired farm work. For the past two years, the state of California has systematically measured the academic performance of individual public schools. The California Department of Education has made the results available in the form of a comprehensive data base.
Aside from test scores for each public school, the published data include some information about the educational attainment of parents, as reported to school authorities, and eligibility for free or reduced cost meals provided under the federal school lunch program. Also, the proportion of Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Filipino, African American and White students enrolled in each school are reported.
Usable data was obtained for 145 individual public schools. There were an additional four schools for which no data was available. The findings are quite striking.
First, the proportion of student households in which both parents have not completed high school is reported. For those schools located within the “Farm Worker MSSAs”, the median was 46%. That is, in half of these schools 46% or more of children lived in households where neither parent had completed high school.
For all California schools, the median proportion of student households in which neither parent completed high school is 13%, roughly one-third the median found in the “Farm Worker MSSAs” schools.
Second, the extent to which these communities are quite poor is reflected in the data on participation in the school lunch programs. The median participation rate was 77% for these 145 schools. In other words, in half the schools, at least 77% of all students qualified for the free or reduced cost lunch program.
Participation in free or reduced cost school lunch programs is substantial in most California schools. The median was found to be 53% participation. Nevertheless, this is well below the value found for schools in hired farm worker communities.
Finally, the extent to which language barriers are significant is reflected in the data on the proportion of students who are English language learners. The median value for the 145 schools was 45%. In half the schools, at least 45% of the students are not proficient in English.
Despite the great language diversity prevalent in California schools, the median percent of English language learners is only 19%. This is well below the figure for the schools in hired farm workers communities.
The ethnic composition among students in the hired farm worker schools is expected to be heavily Hispanic, given that the communities where they are located were selected because they had a majority Hispanic population. The median percent Hispanic is 88%, median percent African American is 1%, median percent Asian American is 0%, and the median percent White is 5%. Nearly all of these “Farm Worker MSSA” schools are overwhelmingly Hispanic, and lack any sign of the diversity found in the state’s metropolitan area schools. It has been said that these are among the most segregated schools in the nation.
A particularly disturbing set of findings in these data are the reported scores on the Academic Performance Index (API), a test-based measure of student achievement. For elementary schools in the hired farm worker communities, the median year 2000 API score was 529. This compares unfavorably with the median for all elementary schools in the state for which the median score was 673.
Of the 92 elementary schools, 29 ranked in the lowest decile, and another 21 ranked in the ninth decile. No elementary school in the hired farm worker communities ranked in the top two deciles in the state.
For high schools, the results are equally disturbing. In the hired farm worker communities, the median high school API score was just 506, which is far below the state median score of 635.
When compared with all California high schools, these results are extremely poor. None of the 24 high schools in hired farm worker communities ranked higher than the seventh decile. Nine ranked in the tenth decile, and nine more were in the ninth decile.
Hispanic Farm Operators
A careful review of berry farm operations in Monterey County for the five-year period 1990-94 showed that 60% of berry farm operators had Hispanic surnames. Although their combined acreage amounted to just one-seventh of the county’s berry production, they are now an impressive force in the industry.
Overall, the number of Hispanic farm operators increased from a statewide total of 3,031 in 1982 to 4,515 in 1997, according to the Census of Agriculture. This nearly 50% increase in the number of Hispanic farm operators occurred in a period when the total number of farms in the state declined from 82,463 to 74,126 (-10.1%).
Most of the Hispanic farm operators in California are located in a relatively few counties. Not surprisingly, the two top counties in terms of numbers are Fresno and Tulare Counties, with a combined total of 984.
Millman has written about the role of recent immigrants in renewing U.S. agriculture. As few of the children of native farmers choose to follow their parents occupation, many recent immigrants, both Asian and Hispanic, have chosen to enter farming because they often have the experience and skills needed to succeed. California has proved to be the leading state in terms of the emergence of new immigrant farmers.
Civic Participation – Voting
Part of the reason for the relative underdevelopment of Latino voting in rural areas of the state is the relatively low level of civic participation by Mexicans who have come to the U.S. seeking jobs in agriculture.
A detailed examination of voting rolls for two Central Valley counties was undertaken to seek an understanding of voting behaviors among immigrants. Data for the 1996 Presidential election has been analyzed and results are available for 13 places among the 60 places represented in the “Farm Worker MSSAs.” These are presented in Table 2.
Table 2. Immigrant Voters in Farm Worker MSSAs, 1996 General Election
Substantial efforts have recently gone into citizenship classes and a major push to get new citizens to register to vote has also been undertaken in these communities. On a national scale, the recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies pointed out that in 1995 just 30% of all foreign-born residents of the U.S. were citizens but that the figure had risen to 37% by 2000. It is likely that the surge in citizenship will be reflected in the voter registration rolls of many communities.
The California Agriculture Worker Health Survey-1999
However, detailed household information was also collected in the representative sample of 936 dwellings from seven communities representing all six agricultural regions of California (five communities were randomly selected to represent five of the six agricultural regions). Four of these communities – Cutler, Firebaugh, Gonzales and Mecca – are also found among the “Farm Worker MSSAs.” In all three of the remaining communities of the CAWHS sample (Arbuckle, Calistoga, Vista), the Hispanic population is less than 50% of the total population. And one community (Vista) is not even rural. Eligibility for participation in the CAWHS was limited to dwellings in which at least one person age 18 or older resided who had performed hired farm work at some point in time during the twelve months prior to the interview. The sample response rate was 83%. A description of the CAWHS methodology and initial findings regarding the health status of the principal subjects have been reported elsewhere.
The dwelling and household information is quite revealing about how Mexican immigrants have, or have not, become integrated into the communities where they reside. First, a very large share of dwelling surveyed had residents who were not part of the household of the subject who was being interviewed. For purposes of the survey, a household was defined to be composed of family members or others, no matter where they reside, who share all major living expenses (costs of shelter, food, clothing, transportation and medical expenses).
In all, 41.5% of the dwellings surveyed included residents who were not members of the formal household of the CAWHS subject. The median number of “Other residents” in such dwellings was 3, and the average was 3.57. The highest number found was 15 “Other residents” in a structure in Cutler, and 13 “Other residents” were found sharing a trailer with an interviewee in Mecca.
The simplest way to think about the “Other residents” is that they could be considered to be “roommates” of the principal subject’s household. Often, these “roommates” were also hired farm workers. Typically, they shared the cost of shelter with the CAWHS subject’s household, but did not share other expenses.
This is an unusually large number of dwellings in which such shared living arrangements obtain. A major reason for this unusual sharing of dwellings by numerous unrelated individuals is the shortage of affordable housing in many of these communities. Vacancy rates in permanent structures (houses and apartment buildings) in the four “Farm Worker MSSAs” of Cutler, Firebaugh, Gonzales and Mecca ranged from 1.3% to 4.4%, and averaged just 2.4%. A vacancy rate of 5% is considered the threshold of a housing shortage, and that level of vacancy triggers rent control measures in New York City.
In the community of Mecca, the CAWHS found that a majority of occupied dwellings were temporary or informal structures. Mecca is also well-known for the number of persons who reside in vehicles parked along city streets at night. A Mecca shopkeeper has even allowed “parkers” to use his parking lot where two portable toilets are provided. However, no potable water is available. The shopkeeper sells bottled water to those who want it.
The CAWHS found that 20.5% of dwellings where hired farm workers reside lacked telephone service. The national figure is estimated to be 3% of all U.S. households lack phone service. Residents of labor camps, temporary dwellings and vehicles reported the highest rates of “No telephone in dwelling.” But 15% of permanent dwellings lacked phone service.
CAWHS households were more complex than most households reported in most demographic surveys. Among the 2,224 persons who were identified by CAWHS principal subjects as members of their households, 357 (16%) did not reside with the CAWHS subject; most often they were living in Mexico or Central America. These are certainly bi-national households.
Among households with a U.S.-born CAWHS subject, household size averaged 2.87 persons. However, among households with a foreign-born CAWHS subject, household size averaged 3.44 persons.
U.S.-born, adult household members who reside with a U.S.-born CAWHS subject show a disinclination to perform hired farm work. Just 13% of those over age 25 had performed some hired farm work in the prior twelve months. Median educational attainment for this same group of adults was “12th grade-no diploma.”
In contrast, Mexican-born, adult household members who reside with a U.S.-born CAWHS subject were much more likely to perform hired farm work. Some 55% of those over age 25 had done so in the prior twelve months. Median educational attainment for this group was just “4th-6th grade.”
At least 96% of children of U.S.-born CAWHS subjects were born in the U.S. But only half of the spouses of these same subjects were born in the U.S., the other half had Mexican-born spouses.
Among households of foreign-born CAWHS subjects, the patterns are quite distinctive. U.S.-born, adult household members of foreign-born CAWHS subjects were only somewhat likely to do farm work. Just 33% of those over age 25 had done hired farm work in the prior twelve months. Median educational attainment for this group was “High School diploma.”
Interestingly, Mexican-born, adult household members of foreign-born CAWHS subjects were more likely to work as hired farm workers than their U.S.-born siblings. About 44% of those age 25 or older had done hired farm work during the prior year. For this group, median educational attainment was “4th-6th grade.”
Minor children of foreign-born CAWHS subjects were extremely likely to have been born in the U.S. Out of 1,060 minor children in such households, 762 (72%) were born in the U.S. In contrast, nearly all spouses of foreign-born CAWHS subjects were born in Mexico or Central America (439 out of 450). This is strong evidence that foreign-born hired farm workers marry in their country of birth, eventually bring their spouses with them to the U.S., and most of their children are born while they reside here.
To summarize these findings. U.S. birth is associated with higher educational attainment among household members of hired farm workers, irrespective of place of birth of the CAWHS subject. Second, higher educational attainment is inversely related to likelihood of performing hired farm work among adults age 25 or older, again irrespective of place of birth of the CAWHS subject. The greater the educational attainment, the lesser is the likelihood that they work as hired farm workers.
CAWHS subjects were asked to describe their race and ethnicity, using the same questions, word for word, as are used in the Census of Population and Housing. The results show that the concepts that underlie these questions are fundamentally flawed as applied to Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. to perform hired farm work.
Among U.S.-born CAWHS subjects, 94% said “Other” in response to the standard Census form choices regarding their race (White, African-American or Black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Other). Foreign-born CAWHS subjects were similarly inclined to choose “Other.” In fact, 92% did so, but another 4% chose not to answer the question at all.
The questions regarding Hispanic ethnicity proved to be straightforward for most CAWHS subjects. Nearly all said that they were Hispanic, Mexican or Latino. Only two persons said they were Chicano, despite the fact that is was one of the choices available to them on an equivalent basis to those mentioned previously. Clearly, Chicano is not a helpful descriptor of ethnic identity for Mexicans who come to the U.S. to perform hired farm work.
A search for those who identified themselves as indigenous persons proved rather frustrating. Just 25 foreign-born subjects said that they were of indigenous origin in response to the question regarding Hispanic ethnicity, but none of these said they were American Indian in response to the question regarding race. Of those who responded that they were Hispanic, Mexican or Latino, an additional 55 volunteered the information that they were indigenous persons when probed to give a more complete explanation of their ethnic origin. Thus, overall, about 8% of CAWHS subjects said they were indigenous persons. But this finding would never have been obtained had it not been for the additional probing. It is likely that there were additional indigenous persons in the CAWHS sample who identified as Hispanic, Mexican or Latino but who did not respond to the probe.
Discussion and Conclusions
Recently published evidence demonstrates that a previously unrecognized large share of European immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century did return to their homeland, either for a visit or to settle, the numbers of Mexican migrants who return to their country of origin on a regular basis is extraordinarily large. U.S. immigration officials estimate that each year there are about 250 million legal crossings of the border by Mexican or American residents. As a result of proximity and the relative ease of crossing the border for those with appropriate immigration documents, not only do many families have members living on both sides of the border but also hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers commute from residences in Mexico to U.S. jobs on a regular basis, sometimes daily, sometimes seasonally, sometimes annually.
Second, as this paper reports in some detail, educational attainment by Mexicans who reside in rural California communities is remarkably low, and is lowest among the most recent migrants. In contrast, U.S.-born household members of households in which Mexican-born farm workers reside have achieved significantly greater educational attainment. As a consequence, few U.S.-born adults in such households are found to be doing hired farm work.
Third, government policy has not been able to provide essential social services to rural California communities where Mexican migrants predominate. As this paper discusses, two of the most essential services, health and education, are failing to meet generally accepted standards.
Fourth, housing policy has failed to provide adequate shelter for a large share of Mexican workers who have chosen to live and work in rural California, and an astonishingly large share reside in temporary dwellings, often without many services taken for granted by most Americans. Such rudimentary features of contemporary American life, such as telephone service is lacking for a large share of these workers as well. Obviously, the “digital divide” is not even a topic for discussion in those households lacking telephone service.
The overall picture is one that describes a marginalized population, as opposed to one that is integrated. The best prospect for these families is through education, as the data clearly demonstrates.
Appendix I. Places or Communities within “Farm Worker MSSAs”
Hired Farm Worker