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January 2019, Volume 25, Number 1

Rural: Meat and Migrants

Some 60 million Americans live in areas with fewer than 50,000 residents. Some 1,888 of the 3,100 US counties have populations that are more than half rural, and 704 counties are considered entirely rural.

Rural counties are aging and losing manufacturing and farm-related jobs, while larger cities are growing and attracting young and educated residents. A few oil-rich rural counties generate high output per worker, but most rural Americans live in counties with stagnating economies, raising the question of whether government policies should move jobs to people or encourage people to move to jobs.

Rural America is sometimes described as the new inner city with poverty and drug issues such as opioids. Technology was expected to lead to the death of distance and allow rural America to flourish as residents worked remotely, but leading firms want superstar employees to work alongside each other to maximize productivity.

The result is ever-richer cities and lagging rural areas. If metro areas are ranked by how much time workers use computers in their jobs, San Jose is at the top of the list, followed by Boston, San Francisco and Austin.

The 26,000 residents of Harlan county, Kentucky are the fifth most dependent on federal government programs, with 54 percent of the income of the county's 26,000 residents coming from Social Security, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps), and the earned-income tax credit.

Harlan and similar counties that are ever more dependent on federal assistance programs tend to vote Republican because of cultural rather than economic issues, against gay rights, abortion rights, affirmative action and gun control. Many Harlan residents resent government policies that reduced reliance on coal, costing their area jobs and people and leading to opiate abuse. A third of working-age adults in Harlan county are employed.

Seven of the 10 states where government transfers account for the largest share of income voted for President Trump in 2016. Many of the poorest residents of these states who are most dependent on federal assistance do not vote.

Meat. Bloomberg in December 2018 reported on Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a city of 8,500 where meatpacking and lower-skilled assembly replaced manufacturers in the 1990s. In May 2018, ICE raided MPC Enterprises, which made precast concrete products, and arrested 22 unauthorized workers from Quiche, Guatemala.

One of the workers arrested paid $10,000 to a smuggler and, on his second attempt in February 2014, reached the US and went to Mount Pleasant. His 14-year old son followed as an unaccompanied minor who applied for asylum and was released to his father. The son went to school in Mount Pleasant, and stayed after his father was deported.

The West Liberty Foods LLC meat plant employs 500 workers and offers up to $200 to current employees who refer new workers who stay on the job at least 90 days. Job requirements are to "work at line speed with the ability to make coordinated hand and finger movements" in cold temperatures and to be available for weekend work.

Acting AG Matthew Whitaker was the US Attorney for Iowa when ICE agents raided the JBS pork-processing plant in Marshalltown December 12, 2006, a city of 27,000 that says residents are still affected by the arrest of 100 unauthorized workers at the 1,000 employee plant. Whitaker ran for the Senate in 2014 on an anti-migrant platform, opposing legalization and pledging more border and interior enforcement of immigration laws.

About 1,300 workers, 10 percent of those employed at six Swift plants, were arrested December 12, 2006.

Whitaker prosecuted a union official for giving a speech advising workers what to do if they encounter ICE agents; the charges were later dropped. A Swift human resources director pleaded guilty to hiding an undocumented immigrant and was sentenced to probation and a $200 fine. Most of the unauthorized workers were deported.

The US is expected to produce more than 100 billion pounds of meat for the first time in 2018, and Cargill, Tyson and other meat firms are raising wages and adding benefits to attract and retain workers. Cargill Inc said in October 2018 that it had 1,000 job vacancies in its 100,000 person US labor force. Cargill provides free buses from Greeley and Denver to its Fort Morgan, Colorado plant, and has established several clinics offering free health care to employees.

Tyson raised its base hourly wage to $13 an hour, and is working with area schools to prepare workers to staff a $300 million chicken processing plant in Humboldt, Tennessee. Meatpackers are also experimenting with robots to eliminate hand work.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in September 2018 allowed poultry firms to apply for waivers to increase the speed of the dis-assembly line from 140 to 175 birds a minute. USDA had previously allowed 20 plants to operate at the higher speed, including several owned by Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride, which control half of the chicken market.