Historically, farmworker children have been underrepresented in every study done by the federal government.  The best figure we have documenting their existence comes from a 20-year-old study done by the National Agriculture Statistics Service, which tells us that 431,730 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 were hired for agricultural work over the course of a year. It hasn’t since been repeated.

That was 20 years ago.  There are current surveys being conducted by various governmental agencies, but those also have their limitations.  For example, the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), conducted every two years by the U.S. Department of Labor, does not count laborers below the age of 14.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its yearly Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey (CAIS) does not differentiate between the children of farm owners and farmworker children.  The semi-annual Farm Labor Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), tracks farmworker wages but does not collect information on their age.


The bottom line is, farmworker children are repeatedly left out of the data, and the problem is harder to address than it first appears.


Undercounting often comes down to basic limitations in a study’s design, such as non-response bias.  The Childhood Agricultural Injury Surveys, for example, are sent out to employers with no follow-up on those that aren’t returned, which can greatly affect employer compliance with injury reporting.  In the NAWS, interviews are conducted in the workplace with employer consent.  This could mean that any worker who is not in compliance, e.g. underage workers, would be screened out by the employer ahead of time.  As a result of non-response bias, both of those surveys’ results would be weighted away from data on underage workers.

Farmworker children themselves may not want to be counted, either.  Anecdotally, AFOP Health & Safety already knows from visits to the field that under-age farmworker children simply get paid under a family member’s social security number.  This results in them not being counted, as they are not even recorded as having worked.   Then there’s the issue of documentation.  According to the NAWS, half of all farmworkers interviewed from 2013-14 self-reported as without work authorization.  This means that, even if a farmworker child is authorized to work, there’s a good chance his or her family member is not.  Children in mixed-status families learn early on to shy away from anyone appearing to be part of law enforcement, because law enforcement could separate them from an undocumented parent.  In the current administration’s immigration crack-down, we should not be surprised that farmworker children are not clamoring for more attention.

Citizenship is becoming an ever-more salient issue the closer we draw to 2020 – the year of the next U.S. Census.  Right now, immigrants and civil rights groups are up in arms over a request by the Department of Justice that a question regarding one’s citizenship status be included on every census form issued.  Anyone without documentation or with an undocumented family member would naturally NOT want to provide that information, and probably refuse to return the form at all.  They assume that they are safer if their presence isn’t known.  This is one reason why again and again young children –  especially Latino children like most farmworker youth – have been the most under-counted age group in the U.S. census.

Unfortunately, farmworker children cannot afford to remain invisible. 

These days data matters, because money follows the numbers.  The 2020 Census data in particular will help determine how 600 billion dollars of federal aid will be allocated towards organizations including those supporting farmworker children.  Accurate census data, as quoted in the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, means “access to healthcare providers and facilities, good schools, food and income security.”


3-5-18 Data on FW Children KM (1)
Four farmworker children who MATTER, and must be counted.

What can we do?

  1. Help alleviate the stigma around data collection, and let farmworkers know that it is in their best interest that they be counted.
  2. Provide education and reassurance that the U.S. Census has processes in place to separate out sensitive information and protect people from being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Even if they didn’t, individuals can protect themselves by skipping any question on the form (i.e. citizenship), and by listing undocumented family members as “Person 1,” “Person 2,” and so on.  Incomplete forms still give critical demographic information.
  3. Use the census data on farmworkers productively, pushing for greater services and programs like our Children in the Fields Campaign which serve agricultural families.

Lastly, stay tuned to our social media account for official word on whether that problematic citizenship question will be included in the 2020 census at all.  Because there’s still a chance that it won’t.



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