I was down in Atlanta for our annual meeting of NAIOP, National Association of Industrial and Office Properties which is the main trade organization that we belong to at Agracel. It is a wonderful group and I learn something at every meeting. My wife and I got down a couple of days early and wondered around eastern and northern GA, having a wonderful time.
We got a chance to spend some time with an illegal, I’ll call Jose. Jose first came to the USA in 1994 from Mexico and has been coming back every year. He speaks great English and his employer told me, “He is an excellent worker and also a leader of men.”
For several years he was able to obtain a H2-B visa which allowed him to work legally, but prior immigration arrests and stepped up vigilance on the part of Homeland Security, resulted in him not getting his visa in 2007. He came back anyway.
Jose is the foreman for a seasonal agricultural project that typically runs for about six months. He earns $1,000/week. His men, paid $9.30/hour, typically earn $600/week. The work is hot and dusty, but also mechanized.
When I asked his employer why he couldn’t find local workers he responded, “The Department of Labor requires us to advertise for these positions. Every year we do so and the largest number of responses we’ve ever had has been four. When we’ve hired the locals, they never lasted for more than a week and usually it is only one day.”
A social worker who overheard the conversation piped in, “It is the difference between wanting to work and needing to work. Jose and his fellow Mexicans want to work. The locals need to work but don’t really want to work.”
When I quizzed her more she related that these same people who wouldn’t work for $600/week were renting government subsidized housing for $25/month that would normally rent for $600 to $700/month. She told me, “Last week I went to visit a 30 year old who was about to have their electricity cut off and didn’t know how they would survive without air conditioning. Thirty years ago no one out here had any air conditioning but today it is a ‘necessity’, we’ve lost touch with what is really necessary. This same person had a 50 or 60 inch HD TV, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
In driving around the community it was obvious that this was a poor, rural community. My data search confirmed what we were seeing, unemployment is 8.5%; poverty is 24.6%; only 44.1% of those over 16 are in the work force (compared to a national average of 64%); 14.5% of those over 25 don’t have an 8th grade education; an additional 23.3% don’t have a high school diploma or GED. The situation is dire!
At the NAIOP Conference I was relating to a very good friend about the situation in this rural community. She told me, “It reminds me of the Canadian Geese who have now lived for generations on lakes here in the U. S. and couldn’t possibly find their way back home to Canada today.”
We have a woman on the lake that we live on in Illinois who is reputed to spend $700/month on bird feed for the ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Today, she’s got hundreds of birds that are captive to her generosity but also are trapped into a life on our small lake rather than taking wing and seeing the world.
In my opinion we’ve got to figure out a way to reverse what is a desperate situation in these communities. We won’t do it by throwing more funds but through education and job opportunities. We also won’t do it by refusing to allow Mexicans and others who want to work from coming here. Their work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit are what we need in places like this.