Many facets of life are affected by socioeconomic status. These include quality of education and health care, job benefits, such as paid time off and sick leave, access to transportation and services, and many more. One you may not have thought about before is life expectancy. A recent article by the Washington Post discusses the correlation between lower socioeconomic class and shorter life expectancy and shows the problem is only getting worse. In 1980, the highest socioeconomic groups outlived lower socioeconomic groups by an average of 2.8 years; that figure rose to 4.5 years by the year 2000. More recently, a Social Security Administration study found the life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 rose six years in the top half of the income distribution over the previous three decades, but rose only 1.3 years in the bottom half during the same time frame. An almost five year difference in life expectancy is no small matter. This issue is particularly troubling for farmworkers, one-fourth of whom live below the poverty line.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the average life expectancy for migrant farmworkers is just 49 years old, compared to 73 years for the population as a whole. Bending, stooping, crawling among crops along the rocky ground, and lifting heavy containers—all common tasks performed by farmworkers for 10 to 12 hours per day, most days of the week—result in extremely high rates of persistent musculoskeletal injuries. Despite the incredible physicality of the work, most farmworkers earn very little, with the average annual income falling between $10,000 and $12,000, far below the National Poverty Line.
Year after year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks agriculture as one of the three most hazardous industries in the United States, alongside construction and mining. Currently, agriculture is the most dangerous, with the highest rate of fatal occupational injuries and high rates of occupational illness and injury. Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis which are absorbed primarily through the skin. Their families are also exposed to dangerous pesticides when they come home from work and their bodies and clothing are covered in residue. AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs has long-reported on the effects of long-term exposure to pesticides, which have been linked to cancers, birth defects, blood disorders, neurological problems, and reproductive problems. Farmworkers are also exposed to the heat and the sun which can cause heat stress, organ failure, and death.
As farmworkers age, agricultural work becomes more and more difficult and risk of injury is greater. Being able to find employment outside of agricultural that is not as physically taxing and hazardous is important because low wages and extreme poverty require farmworkers to continue working in order to support themselves and their families. Farmworkers face multiple barriers to employment, such language skills, education, and lack of knowledge of hiring processes. Age can add an additional barrier if employers believe they will not be able to keep up or will have a harder time learning new skills. This is why it is very important that older farmworkers are able to participate in the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP) to obtain the training, education, and job coaching assistance they need in order to find employment in other fields of work. In the past year, the MET, Inc. program in Plainview, Texas enrolled three farmworkers over the age of 55. Due to the training and support they received from the NFJP, two went on to obtain employment as truck drivers and the third as an electrical groundsman at a renewable energy company.
The health statistics for farmworkers are staggering. They face long term medical issues and shortened life spans due to the hazards of their jobs and the poverty in which they live, without benefits such as health care, medical leave, or workers compensation. These are reasons the NFJP exists—to address the unique needs of farmworkers, and assist them in moving into higher paying jobs which provide benefits for them and their families. In Program Year 2011, the NFJP served 19,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and exceeded their program outcomes in every category. Not only are participants earning more money for themselves and their families right now, but the steps they are taking will help them for years to come. With better jobs, higher incomes, and benefits, NFJP participants can possibly avoid or decrease some of the health outcomes lifetime farmworkers face.