South-Central Idaho's Hispanic population has grown by 85 percent since 2000, according to a new University of Idaho study, paralleling the dramatic increase in the dairy industry in the region, which employs a large Hispanic workforce. The two-year UI study, funded in part by the Idaho Dairymen's Association, examined impacts on communities of the demographic and economic changes driven by the industry's growth. The study, which was strictly economic and sociological and didn't examine environmental issues, found largely positive economic and social changes.
"The dairy industry drove population and economic growth, but it's going beyond agriculture now," said UI Professor Priscilla Salant. "What it's meant for communities here, is that communities like Jerome and Gooding which are farming-dependent, they are bucking a national trend. Three-quarters of those kinds of communities around the country are losing population. ... That is not happening in the farming-dependent communities that rely on the dairy industry in the state." Those communities have weathered the recession better than other parts of rural Idaho, the study found. It also found that while child poverty levels remain high in the Magic Valley, health care systems have not been overburdened by the increase in dairy workers; crime hasn't increased; and schools have seen the biggest impacts. Click below to read more.
Because the workers are mostly young and many have young children, "The student body is changing from, in many cases, predominantly non-Hispanic to Hispanic," Salant said. Jerome has seen an 80 percent increase in Hispanic student enrollment since 2000; Wendell, 70 percent; and Gooding, 40 percent. "That means schools need more staff to work with students who are English language learners," Salant said. You can see the full study here.
The study offered three recommendations: That the dairy industry work toward immigration policy that gives both employers and workers more predictability and security, to allow workers to become better integrated in their communities; that the industry work to increase the prosperity of its workforce, in part by encouraging workers to file for the earned income tax credit; and that the industry work with the University of Idaho and others to fund a Spanish-speaking community development professional to work on issues for the increasingly diverse community.
Community leaders welcomed the new study. "Our community has gone through a lot of rapid change and rapid diversity that we haven't seen before, and any time you get change of this magnitude in such a short period of time, it brings challenges along with it," said Jerome Police Chief Dan Hall. The Rev. Ronald Wekerle, priest at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Jerome, called the study's results "good news." "It helped me understand what I was feeling and I think what community members are feeling about the changes that are taking place in our area, and it gave quantifiable statistical data to what's happening to us as a society," he said. "The report, if you will, can provide us the foundation upon which we can have an intelligent conversation to come together as a community."
Salant said the study's results could be applicable to other areas of the country where rural communities have seen large increases in foreign-born workers, from agricultural areas in California and Texas to manufacturing-industry changes in the Midwest.