KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Rural America has a growing problem. Business and industry are in desperate need of workers, but the national labor pool is small and the country’s birth rate is slowing.
There is no better place to help grow our economy than in rural communities like ours. We need smart public policies for sustained growth – and immigration reform would be a big part of it.
The Iowa Business Council, a group made up of representatives from the state’s largest businesses, has been calling for immigration reform to help solve our workforce issues for years.
There is plenty of research showing that flexible visa programs run at the federal or state level could solve this problem quickly.
There are signs asking for help throughout the city. Help announcements are broadcast on our local radio station, in our local newspapers and all over the Internet. Listen to your favorite national podcast here and you might hear a targeted help announcement for our zip code. Our county, Marion, has a strong agricultural and manufacturing base and is doing relatively well. The median household income in the county is $ 61,038, just a notch below the state median of $ 62,843. About 8% of us live in poverty.
Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, agrees that the reason we have so many jobs open is that we don’t have enough people to fill them.
“One of the bright spots in Iowa’s economy is the fact that the agricultural sector seems to be thriving,” he said, “especially in animal production and food production. They won’t thrive and will not grow if they are unable to continue to attract and retain immigrant labor.
Even before the pandemic, we didn’t have enough workers to fill the vacancies. A recent report from the Marion County Development Commission shows that we had 3.3% unemployment in March 2020. There were 17,340 people working, with around 1,113 job postings and 306 initial jobless claims and continues.
Today our unemployment rate is about the same. The June figures show only a slight increase to 3.5 percent unemployment. We just don’t have enough people in our county or state to fill the vacancies. Raising wages may bring some of these unemployed back to work, but we still won’t have enough workers.
It is a conservative county (in 2020, Donald Trump won it with 66% of the vote). So if you ask in town why there are so many vacancies, the answer is pretty much always the same: welfare is too easy to get, especially under President Biden, and people don’t want not working. They are lazy, unemployed. The Biden administration had increased unemployment benefits by $ 300 until September 6, but many states are denying those benefits. At least 25 states, including Iowa, reject this federal benefit.
This attitude is wrong. People want to work. The rejection of unemployment assistance is, as Mr Swenson called it, a “legislative pain”, with negative economic impact on individuals and states.
The reason we have so many open jobs is that we don’t have enough workers. That’s why the Biden administration needs to make the immigration process easier and faster. Of course, many immigrants will flock to our urban areas, but many more come from rural and agrarian backgrounds. They know many aspects of working in rural areas: agriculture, food production and manufacturing.
We also lack affordable housing here for workers. Real estate is at a premium, and real estate agents are begging for inventory to sell. Mr. Biden has earmarked $ 213 billion for housing in his US Jobs Plan. All new housing developments in rural America are likely to be public-private partnerships. Due to the market, most builders are more strongly drawn to the rapidly growing metro area of Des Moines. Why build five houses in our rural communities when we can build 50 or more in the metro?
We have local builders who prefer to work in the city, but they can’t find enough manpower. A local builder is booked for one year. The labor shortage here is so severe that it is difficult not only to find someone to build a house but also to find a plumber, roofer or handyman.
More immigrants will also increase our tax base and help stabilize social security. The immigrant population is already increasing here, and they are successfully contributing.
Since Republicans demonized immigrants so much under the Trump administration, Democrats must embrace the political leadership that enables rural communities to emerge from our stagnation and fuel the growth of our communities.
Robert Leonard, news director for KNIA and KRLS radio stations, is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations”. Matt Russell is co-owner of Coyote Run Farm in Lacona, Iowa.