DES MOINES, Iowa—Funding is being eliminated for a federal program that pays the children of migrant workers across the country to stay in school instead of working in fields.
The Department of Labor program pays some young people minimum wage to stay in school while migrating with their parents, who travel across the country looking for seasonal farm work.
Coordinators in 31 states and Puerto Rico were told there was no money to operate the program this year, leaving them to find alternate sources, petition Congress or drop the program.
“This is a remarkable abandonment of the most vulnerable youth,” said David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to those kids.”
Repeated telephone messages left this week for Labor Department officials weren’t returned.
The Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Youth Program is designed to combat extraordinarily high dropout rates among seasonal migrant youth workers and the children of adult seasonal migrant workers. It also attempts to end cyclical poverty and low socio-economic levels plaguing that population.
The school dropout rate is understandable, Strauss said. “If you look at their lives they’re in multiple schools because their families travel to work.”
Dropout rates among migrant youths are estimated at 60 percent, according to the federal Office of Migrant Education in the U.S. Department of Education.
Students are pulled from school early because their parents move to where work is more plentiful, disrupting their academic progress and causing many to fall behind or become discouraged.
“They’re pulled out of school or start back late,” said Terry Meek of Proteus Inc., a nonprofit organization that oversees the Iowa program. “Some of them are here for June, July, August and part of September because they’re coming to work with seed corn.”
Despite the stipends, most of the young people still work because their families need supplemental income. The average income of an adult farm worker is less than $10,000 a year.
Nationally, more than 2,500 youth ages 14 to 21 participated in the program last year. Many came from California, Texas and Florida.
The program also provides job placement, tutoring, mentoring, vocational training and career counseling services. It also funds child care and health care.
Four years ago, programs across the country were dividing a healthy $10 million a year. This year, all funding was eliminated and coordinators were told to use money from last year until it dries up.