When was the last time you saw an industry flout its violation of law and then demand greater governmental aid? Well, that’s what we’re seeing in Ventura County, where local growers are demanding continued access to illegal immigrant labor so they can harvest crops and remain economically competitive with producers elsewhere in the world.
Beyond simple access to cheap labor, these employers are content to leave the rest of the social problems created by their workforce to the rest of us. We the taxpayers get to subsidize farmworker housing. We get to subsidize their healthcare and, oh, we get to subsidize the education of their children.
All of these subsidies make one ask a logical question: Is this an industry we really want to save? I mean, if a company can’t make a “go” of it without massive federal and state aid, then is it really a viable business model anymore? Based on the responses to a local symposium held on the future of agriculture along the California coast, the answer was a clear “yes.” Though they didn’t put it exactly this way, growers and members of farm labor coalition groups essentially told the rest of us: “We know we aren’t paying our workers enough to live on, so we need government subsidies.”
Historically, agriculture has been one of the greatest recipients of government aid simply because it is so well organized. One of the first lessons I learned while a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, was that the hinterland roads of California are among the newest and best maintained in the state. The reason why was basic: Farmers have the best lobbying organization in the state and they remain focused on issues that directly affect their industry. Unlike the teachers’ union or the state employees’ unions, ag lobbyists never let their focus wander from their core responsibility.
This laser-like focus by the ag lobby is why the United States government subsidizes ethanol, sugar cane and other crops which our country does not hold an economic advantage. It is why the department of agriculture is in the business of running child-care centers and schools for migrant farmworkers. And it is why local farmers have come to expect subsidies for things like housing and healthcare for workers who aren’t earning enough to pay for their own. Not only do farmers expect us to pay for these services willingly, they expect us to be happy about it as well.
That is why no one considered an opposite, logical future for agriculture in my region. Given all the additional costs it imposes on society in the form of unpaid health, housing and law enforcement, maybe local agriculture isn’t worth saving. If your local auto shop owner announced that he couldn’t pay his mechanics enough to live here, would you suddenly agree to higher taxes so the shop owner could continue paying substandard wages? Or would you willingly pay more for auto repair so that there are no longer any “hidden” costs?
Thus far, the entire debate on the future of agriculture in California and illegal immigration has been framed in terms of how instead of why. Rather than asking “Why should we subsidize an industry that doesn’t pay its workers well enough?” are so-called leaders, at things like agricultural symposia, bypassing the “whys” with “hows,” assuming everyone is in agreement that the industry must indeed be “saved”?
But at what cost? Do we really need cheap lettuce and strawberries so badly that we are willing to subsidize an industry to the point that we pay for housing, health care and schooling while allowing the growers to pocket huge profits? To those who argue that “industry can’t compete” without these kind of subsidies, I reply, “Is this really the kind of business we want to save?”
Given the high costs that illegal immigration imposes on the rest of society, the logical answer, even in an ag county like mine, is “No.”