My ever-present gut and a touch of lactose intolerance are just two of the reasons I could stand to eat way less ice cream.
Meanwhile, unnecessarily high ice cream intake is just one of the reasons Wisconsin’s position on national immigration reform makes me a little sick to my stomach.
I know — the two would seem to have little to do with each other. But I’ll get there.
An Associated Press story in this newspaper last week alluded to what has pretty much become conventional immigration policy wisdom in agriculture-intense states such as this one:
Farms face a shortage of labor so they need the feds to ease up on the (mostly) Mexican workers in the country illegally so they can attract enough hands to pick the crops, cut the hay and milk the cows.
Sure, the nation’s unemployment rate is still stubbornly high, but Americans just aren’t willing to do a job that requires odd hours and hard, dirty work. Or so the story goes.
“There is a labor shortage, especially a qualified labor pool to draw from for the dairy industry,” Karl Klessig, co-owner of the 500-cow Saxon Homestead Farm in Manitowoc County, told me. “There just don’t seem to be many Americans who are willing to do that anymore.”
Notably lacking from last week’s AP story was something you’d normally expect to see in a story having to do with jobs — i.e., what those jobs pay.
But research from 2009 on Wisconsin’s dairy farm labor conducted by UW-Madison’s now-defunct Program on Agricultural Technology Studies found that the average wage for the state’s laborers was $10.06 an hour, although the less-skilled farm jobs paid less — about $9 an hour — and immigrants were more likely to be in those kinds of jobs.
In addition, only about 30 percent of farm laborers got health insurance, fewer than half of farm laborers got other common benefits — chiefly vacation time and retirement benefits — and immigrant farm workers were far less likely to get the latter two benefits than U.S.-born farm workers were.
Klessig said four of his five laborers are Mexican immigrants and that their pay, between $10 and $15 an hour, is about average for the industry. He declined to say if they received health or other benefits.
Laurie Fischer, executive director of the Green Bay-based lobbying group, the Dairy Business Association, said her producer members pay about $10 to start, with many offering health insurance.
And yet somehow policymakers and the ag industry insist on this fiction about Americans not wanting to do farm work.
It’s not that Americans don’t want to do farm work; it’s that the only people willing to do farm work for what farm work pays are the people at the very lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder — people who are often at that rung because they aren’t legally allowed to work in the country in the first place.
Indeed, if having to do hard, sometimes dirty work in a 24/7 industry were a barrier to attracting U.S.-born employees, the majority of our police and firefighters could well be immigrants in the country illegally. As it is, Americans line up for those jobs in large part because they are well-compensated.
So what would happen if farm laborers had better wages?
The Senate version of the current immigration reform bill includes a minimum starting wage for a dairy farm worker of $11.37 an hour, according to Fischer, but even that modest increase would be “very costly for business.”
And if farms provided workers with something along the lines of middle-class pay and benefits?
“You guys ready to pay 150 percent more for your food?” Klessig asked. “That’s the long and the short of it.”
Yes, it is.
We can’t really blame farmers for demanding cheap labor or policymakers for pushing amnesty by another name, because they’re just doing the bidding of Americans who won’t pay more for food.
Never mind that Americans typically devote a smaller portion of their income — about 7 percent — to buying food than any other country, or that we suffer from alarmingly high levels of obesity and could probably benefit from a few price-based barriers to consuming way too much ice cream and other goodies — myself included.
Of course, none of this takes into account the damage higher prices could do to Wisconsin’s $26.5 billion-a-year dairy industry, the role American agriculture subsidies play in twisting the economics of the food market, or the fact that stagnant middle class wages and a growing income gap mean that some Americans really can’t afford to spend more on food.
Or that trying to sort all these factors out can turn a little nausea over immigration reform into one big headache.
Hmm. I bet a nice big bowl of mint chocolate chip might cure that ... .