I don’t know about you folks, but I’ll do just about any kind of job to help my family survive. I do have a couple of caveats.
First, it has to pay enough to make it worth my time. Like most workers, and especially women, I have to take into consideration the costs of work clothes, transportation, childcare, and paying bills that I cannot cut down. If my wages minus these costs is less than I’d make on welfare, it makes no fiscal sense for me to take the job.
Second, it has to be something that will allow me to advance in some way – not necessarily in that career, but certainly in some trade. So I would, if necessary, take a job cleaning hotel rooms if I knew I could eventually move up into management, and make more money with more responsibility.
Outside of these two conditions, I’ll do darn near anything, from cleaning sewers to building houses.
So – why in the world do the immigration reform folks keep implying Americans are simply too proud to do certain jobs?
It has nothing to do with laziness, pride, or elitism. It has everything to do with money.
A Case In Point: Farm Workers
I grew up in Kentucky, where the main legal cash crop was, and still is, tobacco (the main cash crop is actually marijuana, but that’s another story). And my father, while his main job was running his construction business, owned land that came with a tobacco base.
In Kentucky and other tobacco-producing states, a rationing system called the base was instituted long ago to control the supply of tobacco. Farms are grandfathered into the system. Each acreage section is allocated a certain area that can be used to grow tobacco, and the tobacco base of a given farm is based on the tonnage of tobacco that can be grown and sold from that farm.
This makes the tobacco base of a farm a saleable commodity. You can either grow your own tobacco – a nasty, messy, stinky business – or you can sell the right to grow your portion of tobacco to another farm.
Well, my dad needed money to pay the mortgage on his farm. So he kept his base, and the family worked it. Because he was in essence gaining free labor from my mom and us kids, he made a lot more money on that tobacco than he would have by selling the base. This meant farming the land was profitable.
Things changed sometime around my teen years. A farmer up the street died, and his wife, who needed to keep her farm together while her two sons finished high school, weighed her economic options. She could hire farm workers from the local area for about ten dollars an hour. Or – she could hire migrant laborers from Mexico, put them up in an old trailer on her property, and pay them the equivalent of four dollars an hour.She chose the latter. Small farmers, like my dad, had nothing but contempt for this decision. But other farmers in the area started choosing the same option. More and more, labor hired shifted from local farm workers to migrant laborers who came in for summer, did the job, and left. Those who owned larger farms profited greatly.
Small farmers, like my dad, were forced to make a decision. The larger farms could undersell his crop easily, and because they grew more tobacco, their larger crops squeezed the small crops out of the market. Within a couple of years, it was more profitable for him to sell his tobacco base and just let cattle out on that section of land, while he increased the size of his construction company.
Laborers, however, had a worse choice. They could continue to work for the same wages the migrants were receiving, and without the fringe benefits of a place to live and free food, or they could find a job doing something else. It didn’t take long before the whole farm economy was transformed in the area. Laborers found work at McDonalds, where they made a lot more money. Small farmers shut down operations. Large farms got bigger. And migrant laborers became a normal part of the landscape.
A similar thing happened in the more-skilled field of home construction, which was my dad’s other business. It didn’t take long before he was unable to pay the wages necessary to keep local labor; he was underbid by too many other companies that started using migrant labor. Because he’s very good, he was able to maintain a small business – but he lost any hope of growing his company because he was unwilling to hire illegal immigrants to work for his business.
In The Bigger Economic World
If this happened in microcosm over about fifteen years where I grew up, what is happening in the nation as a whole? The reality is not that we need huge numbers of immigrant workers, legal or no. Unfortunately, because this trend was allowed to move unchecked for at least two decades, it is probably impossible to move back.
What we need to do is decide how much the illegal immigrant issue is worth to our own personal wallets. Yes, immigrants are doing jobs at wages Americans can’t afford to take, which means costs go down and dividends to stockholders go up. But they are doing it at the expense of those Americans who exist at the bottom of the wage scale – and many of these Americans will wind up on welfare or otherwise supported by government, even those who find alternate jobs. The costs of intangible social services (road maintenance, police and fire service, and free medical care at clinics and public hospitals) impact all of us, whether we see it or not.
Yet we do get our $2 tomatoes and other produce; the costs of fresh foods is at a low unmatched in our history; and houses can be built at an almost-reckless pace.
Are we exploiting third-world workers, who are so desperate for jobs they will move thousands of miles from their homes to get them?
Are we exploiting low-paid American workers, who have less choice than ever in where they work?
Are we damaging the small farms that America was built on, and that America (especially politicians) still looks back on with nostalgia as the epitome of Americana?
Is it worth it?