January 28, 2005

U.S. Suspends Funding For Key Farmworker Survey

ByDaffodil Altan

In a move that stunned researchers, policy-makers and nonprofit organizations, the U.S. Department of Labor has suspended funding for the only national survey that collects data on the working and living conditions of the country’s difficult-to-track migrant farmworker population.

Known as the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the survey collects information that the U.S. Census Bureau has historically been unable to accurately get, since farmworkers frequently do not have a permanent door for a census data collector to knock on.

“It only costs $1 million a year, but it has allowed for millions of other dollars to be dedicated to farmworker programs,” says Richard Mines, who created the survey in 1988 and now directs research for the California Institute for Rural Studies. The federal government currently spends about $800 million in programs for migrant workers, and funding is based primarily on information gathered in the survey, Mines says.

“Obviously this is very critical,” says John Esparza, editor of Fresno’s La Vida en El Valle and a columnist for the Fresno Bee. An agricultural hub in California, Fresno has one of the state’s largest migrant worker populations. Many groups that help farm-workers must explain the need for the type of services they seek to provide, Esparza says. “Without that kind of information, it’s going to be very difficult for them to get funding to do that.”

Thousands of interviews with individual farmworkers make up the bulk of the survey’s data, which is collected by a handful of researchers three times a year to match seasonal migrations. The survey tracks everything from the way workers are paid to migration patterns, workers’ countries of origin and health information. Survey data is then used by the federal government to determine federal funding for state and local migrant worker programs, such as public health clinics.

“When I first started there was nothing, nothing,” says Mara Gortner, program director for the Napa/Solano Health Project, founded in 1986. The organization provides farm-workers with HIV testing, diabetes care and referrals to free clinics. “I am my own Census,” Gortner says about her visits to various campsites to interview migrant workers. She believes eliminating the federal survey would be devastating for programs like hers that rely on private and federal grants. “It seems now they want to forget (the workers), when the economy of the state depends on them,” she says.

Mines managed the survey for the Department of Labor for 12 years. “If you look at the Census, they only find settled farm workers,” he says. Because of this, Census data tended to suggest that migrant farm workers were generally white and had relatively high educational levels.

“I saw from the survey who the farmworkers were and it didn’t match with Census data,” Mines says. “If you drive down the highway you can see it.”

According to the Department of Labor, data collection has been halted due to cost-cutting pressures and because the department is seeking a “new home” for the survey, namely in the Homeland Security or Education departments. Survey data is used more frequently by those departments, Labor Dept. spokespersons say.

Moving the survey to Homeland Security would only further stigmatize the farm-worker population, says Rey León, senior policy analyst for the Latino Issues Forum. Leon believes that, similar to Proposition 54 — which sought to prevent state agencies from collecting racial information about Californians — eliminating the migrant worker survey would keep researchers and program developers from creating services.

“If we don’t know that Latinos and African-Americans are most in danger of getting diabetes, we won’t know that we need to develop a program to educate them on prevention,” León says.

Rosario Ortiz, a reporter for El Californiano, a weekly bilingual paper in Kern County, says local programs already have difficulty adequately addressing farmworker needs. “Now, without that kind of information it’s going to get even worse,” she says. Migrant farmworkers make up 40 percent of Kern County’s population.

“This is the population that does the farm work for the country, there’s no mincing with that reality,” says Dr. Mark Schenker, professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at U.C. Davis. “The health impacts of farm workers in this country are very real, and those have an impact on our healthcare system.”

Federally funded migrant worker programs currently include Migrant Health and Migrant Head Start, as well as Migrant Education and the National Farmworker Jobs Program. According to the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the survey is also used to evaluate legislation proposals like the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Securities Act.

“Terminating this data is going to do more to make this population disappear from consciousness,” says Schenker at U.C. Davis.

The Department of Labor said that it will still prepare a report for data collected in 2002. It does not know when data collection will resume for 2005.

Daffodil Altan works for New California Media, an association of over 700 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism.

Return to the Frontpage