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October 2016, Volume 22, Number 4

NAWS: V-shape Trends

The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) interviews 3,000 to 4,000 workers employed on US crop farms, making it the largest US farm worker survey. All workers interviewed are employed on crop farms, and workers are paid $20 to answer questions about themselves and their families, their current and past jobs, and their health and access to insurance.

The NAWS began interviewing crop workers in 1989, and many trends have a V-shape, beginning high, falling to a nadir around 2000 when unauthorized Mexico-US migration was very high, and rising since the 2008-09 recession. For example, the share of authorized crop workers was over 85 percent in 1990, fell to less than half in 2000, and rose to almost 55 percent today.

Demographics. The share of US-born crop workers was 40 percent in the early 1990s, fell to less than 20 percent in 2000, and has been about 30 percent over the past decade. The share of crop workers born in Mexico has been stable at two-thirds in recent years. About three-fourths of crop workers are male.

California is different. The share of US-born workers has been less than five percent for most of the past two decades; the share unauthorized was similar to the US's 15 percent in the early 1990s but has been 60 percent or more since the mid-1990s. California has a higher share of unauthorized because the state has a higher share of foreign-born workers, most of whom are unauthorized. About 90 percent of California farm workers were born in Mexico, and three-fourths are male.

It is often assumed that most crop workers are migrants. There is no single federal definition of a migrant farm worker. The NAWS, which considers a worker to be a migrant if he moved at least 70 miles for a farm job, finds a declining share of migrants, about 15 percent in both the US and California. Of those who migrate to do crop work, a quarter follow the crops by having at least two farm jobs 70 miles apart while three-fourths shuttle between homes in the US and Mexico, where most do not do crop work, and US crop jobs.

The crop workforce is aging. In 1990 and 2000, over half of US crop workers were 20-34, but more recently the share of workers in this age group dropped below 40 percent for the US, but remains over 50 percent in California. Average years of schooling for US crop workers were eight in 1990, seven in 2000, and nine today; California crop workers are less educated, with an average seven years of schooling.

The share of US workers who speak English well fell from a quarter in 1990 to less than 20 percent in 2000 and is now a third. In California, the share of workers speaking English well has always been less than 15 percent.

Almost 60 percent of US and California crop workers are married parents; only a quarter are single with no children, a sharp drop from over 40 percent in 2000. Median personal income has risen to the $15,000 to $17,000 range for US and California crop workers over the past two decades. A rising share of US and California crop worker families, almost half, receive some type of public assistance, a sharp jump from less than a quarter in 1990 and 2000.

These demographic data portray an aging male and generally married crop workforce that is settling near their jobs. With fewer young and unauthorized newcomers, there are fewer migrants and more families receiving public assistance benefits, often for US-born children.

Employment. Type of employer data also follows a V-shaped trajectory, starting high, dipping in 2000, and rebounding since. For example, about 85 percent of US crop workers were hired directly in 1990, 73 percent in 2000, and 85 percent today; the California direct-hire shares were 73, 55 and 66 percent, that is, the California direct-hire share has not yet returned to 1990 levels. Average years of farm work experience fell from 10 to eight in 2000 and is now 14 across the US, and fell from 11 to nine and is now 16 years in California. US and California workers were employed an average seven years for their current farm employer.

Average worker-reported earnings were $5.25 an hour in the early 1990s for US crop workers, $6.50 in 2000, and $10.20 today, compared to $5.55, $6.55, and $10.10 for California. The California wage premium has disappeared.

US crop workers averaged over 190 days of farm work in 35 weeks recently, suggesting more than five days of work a week. California crop workers had even more days of farm work, an average 205 days in 36 weeks in recent years. The share of US crop workers with at least one nonfarm job was over 30 percent in 1990, 15 percent in 2000, and 25 percent today. The California shares are 16, six, and 17 percent, that is, California crop workers are less likely to have nonfarm jobs.

Most crop workers are employed in fruits and vegetables, about 60 percent of US crop workers and almost 90 percent of California crop workers. In 1990, 35 percent of US crop workers were in vegetables and 28 percent were in fruits and nuts. By 2000, it was 25 percent in vegetables and 37 percent in fruits and nuts, and today 21 percent of workers are in vegetables and 40 percent are in fruits and nuts.

In California, the 1990 vegetable share was 27 percent and the fruit and nut share 55 percent; these shares were 19 and 70 in 2000, and 26 and 63 percent today, that is, almost 90 percent of California workers are in fruits and vegetables.

The share of US and California crop workers in harvesting has been falling. For the US, harvesting was the primary task when interviewed of 40 percent of US workers in 1990, 30 percent in 2000, and 20 percent today. For California, the harvesting share fell from almost half to 30 percent to 25 percent today. The most common current job today is semi-skilled, such as equipment operator: a third of US workers, and 37 percent of California workers, had such jobs when interviewed.

Most workers plan to continue to do farm work for at least five more years. In 1990, two-thirds of US workers said they would continue to do farm work as long as they could, in 2000 this dipped to 55 percent, and today over 75 percent of workers plan to continue to do farm work indefinitely; the California shares are 75 percent, 65 percent and 80 percent. A declining share, a third of US workers and a quarter of California workers, say they could find a nonfarm job within a month.

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