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Migrant field workers
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On the Border
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Migrant Labor in the United States

Recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor suggest that approximately 1.3 million U.S. citizens migrate between states, earning their living by working in the agricultural industry. The outlook for these workers is bleak. Their education rates are much lower than the national average. Their health is undermined by hard outdoor labor and exposure to pesticides — Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration lists agriculture as the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. The Farmworker Health Services Program reports that the average life expectancy of a farmworker is substantially lower than the national life expectancy rate of the U.S. population. And, according to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, 61 percent of all farmworkers have incomes below the poverty level. For the past decade the median income of farmworker families has remained less than $10,000.

Learn more about America's migrant families below.

 Man and wife, migrant cotton pickers, National Archives, NWDNS-83-G-44101

Historians date the beginning of migratory farm labor in the United States to the years following the Civil War when agriculture became increasingly the domain of business enterprises rather than family or subsistence farms. Always at the bottom of the economic ladder, the migrant labor population was filled time and again with marginalized groups — the poor, immigrants and racial minorities. One of the most famous cultural images of migrant labor was created by the Depression-era novel and film THE GRAPES OF WRATH and by the photos of Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange. However, after the end of the Depression the migrant worker faded out of the public eye.

Today's premier authority Philip L. Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis, has tracked the ebb and flow of the migrant farmworker population. He estimates that during the 1920s there were some two million migrant farm workers in the United States, in the 1940s, about one million. With mechanization the numbers dropped to about 200,000 in the 1970s. However, Martin says that even with the difficulties of counting the migrant population accurately he believes that there are 800,000 to 900,000 working in the United States today.

  • Rural Migration News, UC Davis
  • Library of Congress, Photos of the Farm Security Administration

    The plight of America's farm workers entered the country's consciousness with a bang in 1960. On Thanksgiving Day, CBS broadcast Edward R. Murrow's documentary HARVEST OF SHAME. The film was a graphic portrait of the terrible labor and living conditions of the very people who helped put the traditional Thanksgiving meal on the table. HARVEST focused on workers in Florida's Palm Beach County, otherwise a wealthy area. Murrow famously quoted one Southern farmer as saying "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them."

    The resulting public outcry helped put farmworker conditions on the political agenda. In 1962 Congress enacted the Migrant Health Act, which, among other initiatives, called for the development of health care clinics for farmworkers and their families.

    Forty years after the original broadcast of HARVEST OF SHAME, journalists in the same area of Florida that Murrow studied, published an extensive update of the situation for migrant workers entitled, "Modern Day Slavery."

  • Explore the PALM BEACH POST series
  • Cesar Chavez, National Archives, ARC Identifier: 544069

    Labor activist Cesar Chavez next brought the harsh conditions of farm work to the public stage in the 1960s and '70s. Chavez's family lost their family farm in Arizona during the Depression and became migrant laborers. Chavez began organizing other field workers in the 1960s, using the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights movement. In 1962 he established the National Farm Workers Association (renamed the United Farmworkers Union in 1972). In 1965 Chavez's union and a Filipino workers union launched a campaign to organize grape workers in California. The unions lobbied for a grape boycott, which gained international attention. Due to continued activism by Chavez and his union in 1975, California passed the California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed farm workers' right to organize. In recent years surplus labor has eroded the UFW's gains and today few farm workers are organized.

  • The United Farm Workers' Union: The 1965 Grape Boycott: A Case Study in Strategy, University of California
  • History of the United Farm Workers
  • Migrant path map

    The Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2000 gives a snapshot of today's migrant workers. Among their findings are the following:
    • 88 percent are men, many of them in the U.S. on their own so that they can send money back to families in their home countries.
    • 55 percent are married. Of those, 71 percent are not living with their spouses.
    • Their mean age is 31. Many start the migrant life in their early 20s and return to their home countries within a few years to live in the homes that were built with U.S. money. They may return to the United States several more times before they are too old to work such hard jobs.
    • They have a sixth-grade education, on average.
    • 93 percent are foreign-born, up from 88 percent 10 years ago.
    • 65 percent are here illegally, up from 62 percent 10 years ago.
    The 13 million estimated migrant workers in the United States follow three general streams. In the East, workers begin in Florida and travel up through Ohio, New York and Maine, following crops that range from citrus to tobacco to blueberries. The Midwestern stream begins in Southern Texas and flows north through every state in the MidWest. Workers in the West begin their season in southern California and follow the coast to Washington state or veer inland to North Dakota.
  • National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2000
  • WPA portrait of migrant field worker, c. 1933

    The picture of the Hispanic girl farmworker to the left dates from the 1940s. However, today there are still many children who work on farms across the country. In 1998, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated the number at 300,000. The United Farm Workers union (UFW) estimates that the number may be closer to 800,000.

  • More about the life of migrant children
  • Read essays by migrant children
  • Additional Sources: OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN HISTORY, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Migrant & Seasonal Farm Workers Program; FINGERS TO THE BONE: UNITED STATES FAILURE TO PROTECT CHILD FARMWORKERS ; Rural Migration News, UC Davis; United Farmworkers; "Modern Day Slavery," PALM BEACH POST Special Report; "In the Strawberry Fields," THE ATLANTIC ONLINE; Migrant Clinicians Network; National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2000.

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