Day care struggles, health insurance threaten farm future

Day care struggles, health insurance threaten farm future

Health insurance: What happens when farmers get sick? Our research indicates that health care and child care are two crucial ingredients for a successful food system. Economists find that healthier workers are more productive, adaptable and better able to cope with stress. Farming, meanwhile, is stressful, risky and physical work.

As farmers continue to age and retire, the U.S. needs young farmers to take their place. The country has 3.4 million farm operators today, roughly 2% of the American population, and their average age is 58. We’ve heard numerous stories like Kat’s in our work as social scientists supporting the next generation of farmers. Through thousands of interviews, surveys and conversations with farmers across the country, we have documented how household expenses like access to health care and child care undercut investments that could increase food production across the United States.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made concerted efforts to help young and beginning farmers, particularly with access to farmland, credit and marketing skills. But focusing on the technical side of farming misses a fundamental fact about farms: They are inherently social entities, and their success depends upon social infrastructure as much as biophysical or financial infrastructures. Bolstering food systems’ resilience means supporting individuals so they can grow food. “The stable choice for my children to have health insurance is an irrational choice for my farm business,” she said.

Farmers in states as diverse as Mississippi, California and Nebraska have shared the lengths they have gone to stay eligible for public health insurance. In extreme cases, farmers have said they kept marriages secret. Often, farmers feel trapped: Too much income can put them over the threshold for public benefits. Nationwide, 68% of all personal bankruptcies are connected to health and medical expenses. Such personal and financial crises can have long-term consequences for farms. One in two farm families reported that they worried they would have to sell farm assets to pay health expenses.  In addition to farming, half of all farm families have at least one adult working an additional full-time job, often primarily to get health insurance coverage. It’s an affordable option, but pulls time and energy away from farm work.

Farmers prioritize having health insurance – over 90% of farmers are covered – yet this number hides details that plague the entire U.S. health care system. Research shows that two-thirds of farmers have a pre-existing health condition, and one in three farms has a family member whose health problems make farming difficult.

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