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The National Agricultural Workers Survey

Chapter 3: Income and Poverty.


In this chapter we will discuss farm worker income and poverty levels, personal assets, and the use of social insurance and social services. We begin by examining farm worker sources of personal income including farm and non farm earnings, and personal assets. Next, we look at family incomes and the poverty level among farm worker households. Finally, we look at farm worker family use of social insurance programs such as Social Security and unemployment, as well as social service programs such as Food Stamps and welfare payments.

Summary of Findings

  • Farm workers had low individual earnings from farm work; the median income from farm work was between $2,500 and $5,000. Three-fourths earned less than $10,000 annually.
  • Only one-fourth of the farm workers had non farm work earnings. The median personal income from farm work and other work sources combined was between $5,000 and $7,500.
  • Few farm workers had assets. About half (49%) owned a vehicle and about one-third owned or were buying a house or trailer in the United States.
  • Farm worker households also had low family incomes. The median was between $7,500 and $10,000, and over three-fifths of farm worker households were in poverty.
  • Despite pervasive poverty among farm workers, few used social insurance or social service programs.

Income, Earnings and Assets of Farm Workers

Farm workers derived their personal income from two main sources: farm work and non-farm work. Farm workers relied on these earnings for most of their income as they had few income-producing assets, and, as we will discuss later in the chapter, farm workers received little money from social insurance or social service programs.

Combining all sources of income, most individual farm workers had low incomes. The median personal income for farm workers was between $5,000 and $7,500. Many (28%) had personal incomes under $2,500. Almost three-quarters had personal incomes that did not exceed $10,000, and only one in seven had a personal income over $12,500. Moreover, median personal incomes have remained between $5,000 and $7,500 since 1988, which means that personal incomes, in inflation-adjusted dollars, likely fell during this period.

There are differences in personal income levels among the various ethnic and nationality groups. To facilitate this discussion we have categorized farm workers into three groups: foreign-born workers (of whom 94% are Mexican), U.S. born Hispanics (USH) and U.S. born workers who are not Hispanic (USNH). Although all groups have median income levels which show low individual, or personal, earnings, foreign-born workers had a higher median personal income than the U.S. born. Foreign-born workers earned between $5,000 and $7,500 while the U.S. born workers as a group had a lower median income, between $2,500 and $5,000 (see Figure 3.1). The lower median income level for U.S. born individuals overall was due to the very low income among USH ($2,500-$5,000); USNH reported higher median earnings, between $5,000 and $7,500.

There were also significant differences in personal income among workers with varying immigration and citizenship status. Green card holders or legal permanent residents (LPRs) earned between $7,500 and $10,000 a year whereas citizens and people with other work authorizations (such as amnesty and family unity) tended to have a lower median income of between $5,000 and $7,500. Unauthorized workers had the lowest median income-- between $2,500 and $5,000.

Gender was also a determining factor in annual personal income. Women farm workers had lower personal incomes than men. The median income for women farm workers was between $2,500 and $5,000, while for men, it was between $5,000 and $7,500.

As we shall see further on in this chapter, both for women and for the different ethnic groups, lower individual income did not necessarily translate to lower family income.

Farm Earnings

Figure 3.1
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

Oftentimes workers earned only part of their total personal income from farm work. In general, the farm work portion of a worker's earnings was quite low. The average worker took in between $2,500 and $5,000 per year from farm work. Half (53%) earned less than $5,000 annually from farm work. One in eight (13%) earned $5,000-$7,500; 12% made $7,500- $10,000 and another 8% earned $10,000- $12,500 in farm work.

Workers' earnings from farm work varied by place of birth and ethnic group. Foreign-born workers earned slightly more than the U.S. born. Foreign-born workers had median earnings between $5,000 and $7,500 while U.S. born workers earned between $2,500 and $5,000 annually (see Figure 3.2). Among U.S. born workers farm income varies by ethnic group: USNH earned less farm income than the USH. The median farm income for USNH was between $1,000 and $2,500 while USH had a median annual income between $2,500 and $5,000. Apparently, the USNH were able to earn more off farm than the USH were; for the USH the median for their farm income was the same as their total personal income (see discussion of Personal Income below).

Women earned less from farm work than men. Half of women farm workers (51%) earned less

Figure 3.2
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

than $2,500 in farm work, while the same proportion of men farm workers (49%) earned up to $5,000. Only one in ten women (10%) earned more than $10,000 in farm work, while two in ten (22%) men did. Women earning more than $12,500 from farm work were rare (5%); it was more than twice as common (13%) for a man to earn this much from farm labor.

Farm earnings varied by age as well. Wages tended to rise with age, up to 25 years. Young farm workers tend to have very low earnings. Median farm earnings for workers younger than 18 were between $500 and $1,000. Farm workers between the ages of 18 and 21 had median earnings of $1,000 and $2,500. For farm workers between 22 and 24 years old, median farm earnings rose to between $2,500 and $5,000. For farm workers over age 25, the median farm earnings were between $5,000 and $7,500.

Farm earnings also varied greatly by region in which the interview occurred. Workers in the Midwest had the lowest farm earnings--between $1,000 and $2,500, and more than one-third of workers (37%) had earnings of less than $500 a year from farm work. Workers in the Northeast and the Southeast earned slightly more. Median farm earnings in those regions were between $2,500 and $5,000. Workers in the Western states had the highest earnings, although their farm incomes were still relatively low. Median farm earnings in this region were between $5,000 and $7,500 per year.

Off-farm Work

While for most farm workers the only source of earnings was U.S. farm work, about one-fourth of farm workers also worked in non-farm work. The proportion of workers combining farm work and non-farm work varied by place of birth, age, and region. U.S. born workers were twice as likely to do non farm work than the foreign-born workers (41% and 19%, respectively). Workers between the ages of 18 and 35 were more likely than workers over 35 to combine farm and non-farm work (29% and 21%, respectively). Farm workers in the Midwest and the Western Plains were most likely to do non-farm work (43%), while smaller proportions of farm workers in the Northwest (20%), Northeast (16%), Southeast (24%), and West (8%) did both farm and non-farm.

Personal Assets

Apart from personal belongings, about one-third of all farm workers had no assets either in their home country or in the United States. About half had no U.S. assets. In this section we focus on differences in asset possession by ethnic and nationality groups and by legal status.

The proportion of farm workers possessing any assets depended on place of birth and ethnicity. Almost two thirds of the U.S. born workers (66%) had U.S. assets while only 44% of foreign-born workers possessed such assets. However, among the U.S. born groups, USNH were most likely to hold U.S. assets. Over three quarters (78%) of USNH had assets in the United States while only 40 % of USH had any U.S. assets.

In regards to foreign assets, the situation was reversed. Foreign-born workers held most of the foreign assets. Over one-third had an asset abroad while only 4% of U.S.-born workers did. Furthermore, all U.S. born workers with foreign assets were USH. About one eighth (12%) of the USH possessed a foreign asset.

Looking at asset owners by legal status revealed interesting trends. Workers holding U.S. assets were most likely to be either citizens or LPRs, while people who had work authorization but no green card were less likely to own a U.S. asset. Fewer than one-fourth (23%) of unauthorized workers had any U.S. asset at all. Looking at the foreign-held assets revealed that similar proportions of all three immigrant categories--LPRs, work-authorized, and unauthorized workers--possessed assets in their home countries. Over one-third of each group owned at least one foreign asset. Citizens were least likely to have foreign assets, and as we mentioned earlier, these citizen-held foreign assets were owned exclusively by the USH.

The most common asset among all farmworkers was a vehicle. Almost half (49%) of the farmworker population owned an automobile or truck. This proportion of ownership can be viewed from another perspective; despite the long distances many need to travel in rural farm areas, more than half of farmworkers (51%) did not own a vehicle.

Vehicle ownership varied by place of birth and ethnicity. Workers born in the United States were more likely to own a vehicle than those born abroad (63% vs. 43%) (see Figure 3.3). Most of these vehicle owners were USNH. Almost three quarters (74%) of USNH owned a car or truck and only 40% of USH owned a vehicle.

Figure 3.3
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

If we look at vehicle ownership by legal status, we notice that the citizens and LPRs were more likely to possess a vehicle than the other legal categories. About two-thirds of these two groups owned a vehicle while 44% of work authorized foreign workers and 24% of unauthorized workers had vehicles.

Since half of farmworkers did not own a vehicle, many found themselves in a situation where they had to pay for rides to work. Almost one in five (18%) paid for rides to work. Among the foreign-born workers, the rate was even higher--24% paid someone for a ride to work.

Owning a dwelling was a much less common form of asset holding than vehicle ownership. About one in six farm workers owned or was buying some kind of dwelling in the United States. Although most of these dwellings were permanent houses, one in every five was a mobile home. Overall, the proportion of farm workers who owned a dwelling in the United States (about one in six) declined slightly over time.

Twice as many U.S. born workers were home (or trailer) owners than foreign-born workers (28% vs. 11%). Again, among U.S. born workers, more USNH than USH owned a dwelling. One third of USNH owned a home while only 16% of USH did.

Home ownership viewed by legal status groups also revealed differences. Twenty-eight percent of citizens owned a home, and 21% of LPRs did as well. By contrast, only 8% of those who had work authorization and 4% of unauthorized workers owned a home.

Shifting our discussion to homes abroad, we found that almost one-third of foreign-born workers owned a dwelling abroad, and this proportion (about one-third) was similar for all groups including unauthorized workers. As expected, few U.S. born workers owned homes abroad. Still, USH were the exception--almost one in ten owned a home abroad. Fewer women farm workers owned homes abroad than men (6% vs. 26%).

Family Income and Poverty

In the sections above we discussed farm, non-farm and the total personal income of farm workers. Here we turn our attention to total family (as opposed to individual) income from all sources. Median total family income--between $7,500 and $10,000--was quite low. Moreover, since 1988, this level of income has shown no change, and, considering inflation, income for both individuals and families has likely deteriorated in real terms during these years.

Family Income

Much of the difference in family incomes across groups was due to differences in family composition. Workers in households with multiple wage earners had higher family incomes than those who lived alone or had only one wage earner in the household. For example, despite women farm workers' lower personal incomes, when we consider total family income, women farm workers, on average, lived in households with more income than did the men farm workers. For men farm workers, the median income of their families was between $7,500 and $10,000, while for families in which female farm workers lived, the median earnings were between $10,000 and $12,500. This higher income level was largely a reflection of the fact that most women (approximately three quarters) lived with relatives who were wage earners while most men (approximately two-thirds) lived on their own without close family present.

Similarly, farmworkers differ in their living patterns and resultant family income levels depending on where the farmworker was born and according to his or her ethnic group. Median family income among the U.S.-born workers was $10,000 to $12,500 a year, while families with a foreign-born farmworker earned a median of between $5,000 and $7,500. Among U.S.-born workers, the USH lived in households with lower income than the USNH ($5,000-$7,500 vs. $17,500-$20,000).

Among the legal status categories, citizens and LPRs had higher median family incomes--they earned between $10,000 and $12,500 annually. Those with work authorization who did not have a green card earned less; their median annual income was between $7,500 and $10,000. Unauthorized workers, most of whom lived without family, had a much lower median family income--between $2,500 and $5,000.

Incomes alone do not provide a complete measure of standard of living, and measures of poverty provide one way of describing the low levels of income in farm worker families since they account for differences in family size while using constant dollar figures.


Overall, the farm worker population was quite poor -- over three-fifths (61%) of the population lived below the poverty line. This level was higher than reported for the NAWS population in 1990 when only half were reported living in poverty.

Differences in ethnicity and place of birth were found among those who fell below the poverty line. Forty-five percent of the U.S. born and 69 percent of the foreign-born lived in poverty. Among the U.S. born workers, the USNH were much less likely to be living in poverty. Less than one third of the non-Hispanic workers lived in poverty compared to nearly three-quarters of the USH. Moreover, the majority of the USNH families in all the family size categories containing six or fewer people lived above the poverty line. Even the majority of those USNH who lived apart from family lived above the poverty line. By contrast, the foreign-born and the USH farm workers both were quite likely to have incomes below the poverty line. More than two-thirds of each group lived in poverty. In fact, the majority of these farm workers, in any of the family size groupings, lived in poverty.

Poverty levels also varied with citizenship and immigration status. A minority of citizens (46%) lived below the poverty line while the majority of all of the immigrant categories lived in poverty. Fifty-four percent of the LPRs, 68 percent of the work-authorized without a green card, and 80 percent of the unauthorized lived in poverty.

Proportionally fewer women (54%) lived in poverty than men (63%). This occurs because women tended to be in households with more than one wage earner whereas more men live apart from family.

Poverty varied with the size of the family. Those who lived apart from their families were very likely to live in poverty. These unaccompanied workers (those without parents, spouse or a child present) were about half of all farm workers. Those who lived in small family groups of two to four people were the least likely to be poor -- less than half of these were poor. This group of small families made up about one-third of the population of farm workers. The remaining one sixth of the population, who lived in households with large families (more than 4 members), were quite likely to be living below the poverty line.

Married farm workers who lived together and did not have small children were less likely to be poor. One-third of the childless married farm workers who lived with their spouse lived in poverty, whereas over two-thirds of those who lived apart from their spouse lived below the poverty line.

Single mothers were particularly prone to live in poverty. Mothers with small children at home experienced different levels of poverty depending upon their relationship with a spouse. Those mothers with no spouse at all, about one fifth of the total of mothers, had the highest level--almost nine in ten lived in poverty. Married mothers living away from their husbands, about 5 percent of the total, also had a high level of poverty--78 percent lived below the poverty line. However, married mothers who lived with their husband and children actually had a lower level of poverty (53%) than the average for all farm workers (62%).

Social Insurance and Service Programs

In the two sections below we will discuss the frequency (and not the quantity) with which farm workers utilize these programs. The first section covers the level of use of Unemployment Insurance, Disability and Social Security pensions. The second section covers means-tested assistance programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, AFDC and the WIC program.

Social Insurance Programs

The utilization levels of social insurance programs by farmworkers were quite low overall. Only four percent of the households had received either social security pension or disability benefits in the two years before the survey. Unemployment Insurance (UI) utilization was also low for a population out of work for much of the year; only about one in five workers had received unemployment insurance in the two-year period prior to the interview.

If we look at the utilization rates, some interesting patterns emerge. Farmworkers born in the United States (both Hispanics and non-Hispanics) received benefits more than twice as often from the Social Security Administration, pension and disability, than did the foreign-born. However, among the U.S. born workers, the rate was just 7 percent.

Figure 3.4
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

For unemployment insurance utilization, the pattern was reversed. Foreign-born workers were more likely to receive unemployment insurance benefits (22%) than the U.S. born (16%). However, among the U.S. born there was a wide gap between the non-Hispanics of whom only 9 percent collected and the Hispanic U.S. born of whom 30 percent collected.

The use of social security services varied with citizenship status and gender. Seven percent of citizens received services from the Social Security Administration, while 4 percent of the LPRs, 2 percent of the other work-authorized and just 1 percent of the unauthorized received such services (see Figure 3.4). Women received these payments twice as often as men (7% vs. 3%). Recall, however, that more than twice the proportion of female farm workers are U.S. born (52%) than are male farm workers (25%).

Unemployment Insurance utilization also varied with legal status but not with gender. Seventeen percent of citizens, 46 percent of LPRs, 32 percent of the other work-authorized and 5 percent of the unauthorized collected unemployment insurance.

The level of farmworkers who received unemployment insurance remained constant over time, at about 20%. However, use of social security pensions and disability benefits seems to have declined, from a high of 10 percent to 4 percent during the study period (1989-1995).

Social Service Programs

Despite the high levels of poverty, the low rate of social insurance use and the scarce assets held by the majority of farm workers, the group as a whole used few social services. However, certain programs, in particular Food Stamps and Medicaid, were used by significant groups of farm workers. To a lesser extent, the WIC Program (Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and cash assistance programs1 were used. Other social service programs including publicly subsidized housing were rarely used. The levels of utilization of the Food Stamps program did not change significantly since 1989.

The NAWS data can only be used as an upper-bound on the level of services used by unauthorized workers and their families. The NAWS asked whether anyone in the household used various social services, but it only had legal status data on the farm worker. In some cases, the unauthorized farm worker may have an eligible family member who was legitimately receiving social services. Looking at NAWS data on services to households of unauthorized workers probably overstates the level of unauthorized workers using social services.

That said, the families associated with unauthorized workers used few social services in the United States. About 7 percent of unauthorized farm workers used each of two social services for which they and their households may be eligible under some circumstances--Medicaid and WIC. For other programs, unauthorized workers might qualify if there was a person with the proper immigration or citizenship status living in their household. About 7 percent of households where an unauthorized farm worker was interviewed used Food Stamps and about one percent received cash transfers.

In the analysis which follows we will often limit our discussion to the legally authorized workers who use the vast majority of social services. In this way, we can estimate the percentages of legally qualified farmworker users of services at the time that the 104th Congress passed welfare and immigration legislation.

Looking at the major programs without the unauthorized, we see that social service programs were still used only by a small minority: 20 percent used Medicaid and Food Stamps, 11 percent used WIC, and 5 percent received some kind of cash payment.

When we looked only at farmworkers with proper immigration or citizenship status who also had small children (less than 15), we found somewhat higher proportions of social service utilization. Over a third (35%) used Medicaid, 29 percent used Food Stamps, almost a quarter (23%) used WIC, and 7 percent received cash transfers (see Figure 3.5).

The use of service programs varied by the place of birth and ethnicity for the legally eligible farm workers with small children. The U.S. born Hispanics were the biggest users of services. About half of these workers with small children used Medicaid and Food Stamps, over a third used WIC, and one in six used cash assistance programs. The U.S. born non-Hispanics and the foreign-born with eligible immigration status had lower levels of usage. At most, only one-third of either of these groups used any service. For the foreign-born workers with eligible immigration status and with children, the use of cash payments was exceptionally low, at four percent. However, between 21 and 33 percent of this group used Medicaid, Food Stamps and WIC.

It should be pointed out that although the proportions for some groups may not be large, the absolute levels were sizable. If we assume that there were 1.6 million crop workers,2 then approximately 15 percent, or about 250,000 workers, were receiving Food Stamps and Medicaid. Of these recipients, many were foreign-born farm workers with eligible immigration status (but were not citizens).

For example, 35 percent of Food Stamps recipients were foreign-born non-citizens; 47 percent of Medicaid Program recipients and 41 percent of WIC recipients were foreign-born non-citizens. Therefore, for the Food Stamps program about 87,500 crop workers, the Medicaid Program about 117,500, and the WIC program about 102,500 will potentially be affected by legislation passed by the 104th Congress.

Figure 3.5
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

Among the workers who had eligible immigration or citizenship status and were below the poverty line, many did not receive services despite their eligibility. For the two major farm worker service programs, Food Stamps and Medicaid, a large majority of the population with

eligible immigration status living below the poverty line did not receive the service. Among the poor with eligible immigration or citizenship status, about a quarter received Medicaid and about a third obtained Food Stamps. In WIC and cash assistance, the level of receipt for the farm worker poor was even lower-- 17 percent received WIC and 8 percent received cash assistance.

1 We combined AFDC and local cash assistance programs into one category.

2 The estimate of the Commission on Agricultural Workers was 2.5 million farmworkers. According to USDA calculations, crop workers were approximately two-thirds of all farmworkers. Therefore, we estimate that there were about 1.6 million crop workers.