The Myth of Illegal Immigration and Food Prices

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One of the big talking points that pro-immigration groups make is that our food prices would be much higher if the US did not tolerate the flow of illegal immigrants into the country to work in agriculture. They argue that no American would do the work the illegal immigrants do for the wages they make. It is a myth.

First of all, agriculture is not a labor intensive business. The US supplies all the food it needs, plus exports billion of dollars to other countries, using very few people. In 1870, between 70% and 80% of the US population worked in agriculture. Today, less than 1% of the population works in agriculture. At last count there were only 821,000 people in the US employed in agriculture. This is out of a total civilian workforce of 153,904,000. There are 312,000,000 people in the US and these 821,000 workers produce enough to feed everybody, plus export food to the rest of the world. By 2018, agricultural employment in the US is expected to decrease to 804,400, even though the US population will be increasing.

Here is why. In 1945 it took 14 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2 acres of land. By 1987, it took less than 3 man-hours to produce the same 100 bushels of corn on a little more than 1-acre of land. In 2002, the same 100-bushels of corn were produced on less than 1-acre of land. Productivity has reduced the demand for agricultural labor, and made labor more efficient.

An average household currently spends about $370 per year on fruits and vegetables. If curtailing illegal alien agricultural labor caused tighter labor conditions and a 40 percent increase in wages, the increased cost to the American family would be $9 a year, or about 2.5 cents per day. Yet for the farm laborer, the change would mean an increase in earnings from $17,600 to $24,640 per 2000-hour work year. That increase would move the worker from beneath the federal poverty line to above it. In fact, the salary would be higher than the median salary paid by Walmart.

The cost of labor is a very small component of food. Consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples, or $1 for a head of lettuce, are giving 16 to 19 cents to the farmer and 5 to 6 cents to the farm worker.


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