For migrant and seasonal farmworker children and their families in the United States, economic necessity often forces them to prioritize work over school. Here in California, 52% of farmworker families earn less than $15,000 per year, which is over $7,000 below the federal poverty guideline for a family of 4. The difficult conditions that these families face often do not allow them the luxury of thinking about and planning for the long term. Tragically, this situation leads to an estimated 65% drop out rate for farmworker youth.
Education is the key that allows farmworker families to break this cycle of poverty. However, it can be difficult for these families to grasp the added economic impact of a high school diploma and a college education, especially in the face of pressing and immediate short-term needs for survival. This point is clearly illustrated, though, in a recent article that appeared in The Sacramento Bee. By studying changes in earnings in the Sacramento region from 2008 to 2009 and comparing each of the various education levels, The Bee discovered that an advanced education is even more beneficial during these difficult economic times.
From 2008 to 2009, Sacramento residents without a high school diploma saw their earnings decrease by 11.4%. However, earnings for high school graduates in the same region only fell by 8.4%. For college graduates earnings barely fell at all, only decreasing by 0.3%.The most shocking statistic, though, showed that those with a professional or graduate degree actually saw their earnings increase by 5.9%, despite the economic downturn.
As the title of the article suggests, and the evidence from the study in Sacramento makes clear, an education acts as a safety net for incomes, with higher levels of learning providing a greater cushioning effect. An 11.4% decrease in earnings has a devastating effect on farmworker families living at or below the poverty line. To ensure the long-term stability of these families—and, by correlation, our food system—it is imperative that farmworkers be paid a living wage and farmworker children be afforded the same educational opportunities as all other children in the United States.
We can all work to make a difference by supporting educational programs for farmworker youth, finding out where our food comes from, and supporting fair living wages for all farmworkers so their children can work hard in school and not in the fields.