The face of the migrant worker is no longer solely that of the Latino or the undereducated. It’s the face of the elderly who were caught in the tsunami of the 2008-09 Great Recession. They are school teachers, white collar executives, or couples with nest eggs that were demolished by medical expenses. These new migrant workers live in their cars, their campers or RVs, if they are lucky to have one, and their monthly expenses are greater than the social security benefits they receive. Some are without families or are too embarrassed to reveal their circumstances to them.
So many elderly live as migrants, they have a name: Workampers. These older folks ride a circuit of seasonal employment that is grueling, low paid and without medical benefits or sick leave. (“The End Of Retirement,” by Jessica Bruder, Harper’s Magazine, August 2014, pgs 30.) They are employed by large corporations like Amazon or Home Depot to work in warehouses during the holidays for $10-12.. In between, they follow the agricultural season picking ”raspberries in Vermont, apples in Washington and blueberries in Kentucky.” (Ibid. pg. 29) Most of their vehicle license plates read Texas or North Dakota because both states levy no income tax and registration fees are cheap. But the truth is these people are nomads until the off season where they settle briefly in sunny climes.
Life is hard and risky on the road. Beyond the trickle of money Workampers earn, they rely upon their stamina and help from their fellow migrants should their vehicle break down or they need to get to an emergency room. Their biggest fear is getting too old to work. One woman admits when that happens, she’ll follow the route of Thelma and Louse.
Like the workers who migrate from Mexico, these folks aren’t lazy. They’re victims of a bad economy and the unequal distribution of wealth in this nation.
I’d like to think that as their fellow Americans, we have a duty to them. I’d like to hope we’d rise to remedy the situation. But when voter turnout is as low as 14% in some parts of this country, I don’t see any legislative remedy coming soon. The touching part in all this is that Workampers haven’t lost faith. You can see them crisscrossing the interstate highways, the stars and stripes waving bravely from a window or the words, “God Bless American,” painted on the side of their van. (Ibid pg. 32).
While the rest of us wallow in political cynicism, how do we keep faith with them?