For all I know, my buddies Joe and Mark may have been the last white, Anglo-American field laborers in the United States. In their late teens during the early 1980s, they spoke often of the dozens of Hispanic migrants they toiled with at a large nursery in rural Rhode Island.
I can't recall since having met a single Caucasian whose primary job responsibility was agricultural. The only non-managerial types I've seen doing that kind of work have been minorities -- mostly Latino, of course.
Maybe Joe and Mark were unique. Joe lost his father to an automobile accident when he was very young, and was left with his mom and four sisters: two older, two younger. As the only male he was highly motivated, known in town as a hard worker and innovative. A natural leader, he was the high school football team's captain and a bulldozer of a running back. He established his own mini-farm and raised chickens, pigs, turkeys and lambs, and inspired his friends to join him in his livestock ventures. He was too busy to concern himself with sun exposure, sweat, or fatigue.
Mark was an independent thinker and carried the requisite stubbornness that comes with it. No less diligent than Joe, he was highly intelligent but instead of pursuing the path of academia, he became an auto mechanic. I marveled at his frequent discoveries of new music, so important to teenagers. He had his share of clashes with his parents, but remained fiercely loyal to them at the same time. He too played football -- a blocker for Joe.
Joe and Mark were much stronger-willed than me, which I admired. One summer day in my college years another friend, who worked for a mason, called and asked me if I could help as a day laborer from time-to-time. My first opportunity was spent sorting used bricks, keeping the good and tossing the bad, and helping lay out a walkway around a residential pool. A day in the heat carting heavy blocks was enough for me, apparently, as I was never asked to return.
I guess that appreciation for my old friends is why I'm somewhat, as George Will wrote last week, "melancholy" since I think highly of those who want "to get to America to do work most Americans spurn." At the wage level paid for inglorious agricultural and construction work immigrants will line up, while teenagers and kids just out of high school -- the other labor pool most likely to take jobs for that kind of pay -- reject it. Standing around behind a retail counter or taking your fast food order is more appealing, or at least less unpleasant, I guess.
So what does this speak about most loudly: the kids, their parents, the culture, or the economy?
The kids, as would most, want the biggest attainable buck for the amount of effort they are willing to put forth. So the issue with them and manual labor is that the reward doesn't inspire the needed motivation.
And parents for the most part don't care about a work ethic. As long as junior is occupied and paying something for car insurance and maybe college, they appear content.
As for the culture, our prosperity has led to material comforts even in homes identified as low-income. Why exert yourself to get ahead when you're not so far behind and still comfortable?
That leaves the economy, which chugs along despite the behaviors of its labor resources. But it does reflect what Americans are willing to pay for goods and services, and the wages they are prepared to work for.
The problem is we have sailed along, post 9-11-01, with minimal economic implications on labor costs. Fewer people (compared to now) cared before the terrorist attacks that immigrants were working these labor-intensive jobs. Now the dangers of our porous borders are more obvious, and the cost of fixing them is not only going to be in building walls and boosting enforcement, but also in the price for products and services.
The consequences, if the U.S. finally enforces immigration more strictly, will be addressed by the market. Draining the pool of low-cost employees will either drive up the costs of building structures and harvesting produce, or move the production of materials and food elsewhere to maintain the prices we're accustomed to.
Finding guys like Joe and Mark ever again seems unlikely, but under present circumstances, it's too bad we couldn't instead deport some of those inert teenagers and keep those hard workers from south of the border.