Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Labor shortage, Farming, and Immigration policy

The media today is focused on how immigration reform will impact our economic possibilities and realities.  Today's article from Kirk Johnson in the NYTimes highlights an American workforce not willing to take hard farm jobs. Through my best urban sociologist lens, I view people wanting more than to simply "fill jobs" -- but that is not the way the story is presented.  This article was also referenced in a spirited debate this morning on the Diane Rehm Show.

The dialogue revolves around the context of new (legally challenged and court confirmed) immigration policy and how it coerces undocumented workers back to their home country - potentially leaving crops unharvested.

I shake my head at this kind of analysis, because it overlooks the complexity of the social dimension when observing people's job selection process as well as the historical trend of people migrating to cities. The farming industry has been altered immensely through a technological overhaul that dates back to the industrial revolution.  However, new technology is usually received with mixed reviews because of how it typically leaves low-skilled workers without jobs, replaced by machinery.  This unsettling news is no comfort to the low-skilled workers in this country that are suffering most from unemployment.  Yet, despite their relatively low skill (and subsequently low wage), they have quality of life expectations that the rural farm setting does not offer.

Evidence to this fact can be seen in the affinity that low wage workers have for city centers.  It is the city that offers affordable transportation, social opportunities and a quality of life that is made interesting by the unique opportunities to urban life.  Ever since the industrial revolution and the invention of machinery that has replaced farm jobs, people have been migrating to the city nonstop.  If it were for only employment opportunity, farm labor shortage should have them migrating back -- but these people are choosing to stay in the city.  This is evidence for the quality of life that cities offer over their rural neighbors.  Despite one out of 11 people are unemployed, these folks still choose the city to the rural farm life.

So if a labor shortage in rural farm country cannot lure people out of the city, perhaps it is time to bring the farm to the city.  The vertical farm might be a viable option.  This potential solution looks to face the problem of feeding a population on an exponential growth projection and the fact that there is no stopping people choosing their home in a city rather than a rural farm.

But this doesn't offer politicians an easy way to skirt the pressing issues of immigration policy.  For too long, it seems that we've been addressing immigration with the following questions:

  • "What will it do for the benefit of our economic well being?"
  • "What stress will it put our social services under?"
  • "Why should our tax dollars pay to educate these children?"
I think these are the wrong questions and they only look at the problem under a very short timeline and avoid moral humanitarian perspectives.  My questions are more about what if we don't open up opportunities to our neighboring nation?  What will make the pressure of managing "illegals" subside?  Taller fences?  More armed guards?  Security will not add value to our economy.  Investing in human potential, immigrant or domestic, may be more productive (although I would like to see empirical evidence on the matter).