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January 2018, Volume 24, Number 1

Meat and Migrants; Rural

The US produced a record 100 billion pounds of meat in 2017, including 48 percent poultry and 52 percent beef and pork; about 15 percent of US-produced meat is exported. USDA expects Americans to consume 223 pounds of meat per person in 2018.

Most poultry plants process 140 birds a minute. The National Chicken Council asked USDA in September 2017 to remove limits on disassembly line speeds, drawing opposition from unions representing poultry workers who believe worker injuries will increase. The NCC counters that faster line speeds would apply only to evisceration lines that are almost fully automated, not to parts of the line where workers cut and package poultry.

Some towns reject meat and poultry processing plants, in part because they attract foreign-born workers. Tyson, the largest US meat company, abandoned plans to build a poultry processing plant near Tonganoxie, Kansas in September 2017 after local residents objected. Tyson in November 2017 said that the 1,500-employee plant would instead be built in Humboldt, Tennessee.

President Trump in December 2017 commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, owner of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa that was raided May 12, 2008. Almost 400 unauthorized migrants, mostly Guatemalans, were apprehended, and many served prison sentences for identity theft before being deported. Rubashkin was later convicted of inventing collateral to get bank loans that left banks with $26 million in losses.

The Agriprocessors plant was sold, renamed and continued to operate with a mostly immigrant work force. Many books were written and films made about Postville in the wake of the 2008 immigration raid. Most concluded that the city was handling increased diversity well until the immigration raid disrupted the work force and the economy.

Tyson's Holcomb, Kansas plant processes 6,000 beef cows daily 200 miles west of Wichita with the help of 3,800 workers on two shifts; each cow is dis-assembled in about 40 minutes. Packers Sanitation Services provides third shift clean-up crews that include many foreign-born workers unable to get better jobs, offering them $12 an hour to use high-pressure hot water sprayers to clean equipment.

Injuries to clean-up workers are recorded to their employers, not to the plant in which they were working. Packers, with 17,000 workers, has the highest rate of severe injuries among employers tracked by OSHA, 14 per 10,000 workers in 2015-16. Packers argued that an unauthorized woman who lost an arm trying to clean under a moving conveyor belt broke safety rules; she was fired and did not receive the usual $150,000 payment for loss of an arm. Packers, owned by Leonard Green & Partners LP of Los Angeles, has revenues of $800 million a year from cleaning 500 meatpacking plants.

Across the US, a third of poultry workers and two-thirds of beef and pork workers are unionized.

Many Midwestern towns have manufacturing facilities that are struggling to attract workers. A major reason is the lack of affordable housing. Many of the houses in rural areas were built before 1970, some older residents are staying in them, and there has been little new housing constructed in counties that are losing residents. Hourly wages are often $12 to $15 an hour, which is not sufficient to afford new housing.

EB-3. North Carolina-based House of Raeford requested EB-3 immigration visas for 1,900 foreigners between 2014 and 2016 to help staff its seven chicken processing plants that employ 4,300 workers. When lengthy queues for these immigrant visas for low-skilled workers shortened in 2013, consultants in China, Korea and elsewhere emerged to link citizens willing to work in meatpacking with US employers who would sponsor them for immigrant visas.

Many of those who paid $25,000 or more to consultants said they wanted their children to be educated in the US.

Recipients of immigration visas are free to work in any job that does not require US citizenship, but some consultants require them to sign contracts to work for the sponsoring employer for 12 months. Over half of EB-3 immigration visas in FY16 went to Koreans.

Rural. Some 100 million Americans live in the center of large metro areas, and 80 million live in their suburbs. Another 97 million people live in smaller metro areas, and 46 million live in the 1,800 rural counties, making a seventh of US residents rural.

The populations of large metro areas and their suburbs rose almost 10 percent between 2007 and 2017, while the population of rural areas was stable. Over the past quarter century, there have been more deaths than births in rural counties, as young people leave for college and do not return.

Rural counties attract relatively few immigrants: about four percent of their residents were foreign born in 2017, compared with 22 percent in the center of large metro areas and 13 percent in their suburbs.

Education levels are lower in rural counties, where only 18 percent of residents had completed college in 2017, compared with 35 percent in the suburbs of large metro areas and 34 percent in the center of large metro areas. Crime rates in cities have fallen sharply, largely eliminating the safety premium that once accompanied living in rural counties.

The labor forces of rural counties are becoming less attractive to employers. The male labor force participation rate was 56 percent in 2017, compared to 67 percent in the suburbs of large metro areas. The number of disabled workers aged 15 to 64 was 62 per 1,000 in rural areas, and 35 per 1,000 in the suburbs of large metro areas. Health indicators for the leading causes of death, cardiovascular disease and cancer, are better in urban areas; diabetes is worse in rural areas, with 80 cases per 1,000 residents, compared to 60 in the center of large metro areas.