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April 2006, Volume 12, Number 2

The New Rural Poverty

This three-part eight-chapter book deals with rural poverty associated with immigration in rural and agricultural areas. Part 1 has three chapters that outline the interdependencies between immigrants and agriculture. Part 2 examines the changing face of rural America in three areas: inland agricultural valleys in California, farm areas in coastal California, and meat and poultry processing centers in Delaware and Iowa. Part 3 turns to the policy challenges and options, assessing the likely impacts of current proposals for immigration reform on rural America.

Rural poverty has been the subject of some of America's best known literature, including John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which chronicled the reception that Dust Bowl migrants received in California in the 1930s. Reports of "the people left behind," such as Michael Harrington's The Other America, helped to inspire the War on Poverty in the 1960s by warning about and calling attention to an invisible, enduring rural poverty.

A new type of rural poverty has appeared in rural and agricultural areas with the arrival of Mexican immigrants to fill farm and farm-related jobs. Most of the Mexicans who begin their American journeys as seasonal farmworkers remain in the fields for less than a decade, and their children educated in the United States do not follow their parents into the fields.

This combination of high farm worker attrition and low reproduction of US farm workers poses a dilemma for rural America. Farmers argue that migrants are needed to sustain and expand agriculture and related industries. However, if newcomers seeking the American dream remain farm workers for a decade or less, and their children shun farm jobs, rural America faces an immigration treadmill, serving as a port of entry for newcomers but not providing careers for the immigrants and their children. Immigrants too old to fill farm jobs, and their children who refuse them, could become a new rural underclass, one whose only opportunity for mobility will require migration to urban areas.

Legalization of migrant workers and employer sanctions in the late 1980s were expected to return agriculture to the 1960s path of rising wages and mechanization. However, only one side of this legalization and enforcement "grand bargain" was implemented. The farmworker legalization program, often considered rife with fraud, gave immigrant status to a sixth of the adult men in rural Mexico, but employer sanctions were not enforced and did little to stem the flow of unauthorized Mexicans, who obtained fraudulent documents and jobs. Contrary to expectations, many newly legalized Mexicans brought their families to the United States instead of shuttling between seasonal U.S. farm jobs and homes in Mexico, literally changing the face of the U.S. areas in which they settled.

Martin, Philip, Michael Fix, and Ed Taylor. 2006. The New Rural Poverty: Agriculture and Immigration in California. Urban Institute Press.