BLOG: Are Immigrants Taking Our Jobs? An Economic Analysis of Immigrant Laborers in American Poultry Farms

By Jacob L. Peterson. Ball State University

Immigrants are taking American jobs, but we are all better off because of it. In today’s political environment, immigrants are viewed as a burden on American resources. This study examines American poultry and crop farms to determine the economic burden or gain on the host country’s labor supply. This study finds that the labor supply of immigrant labor is more elastic than the American farmer’s native labor supply. The rising domestic demand for chicken (often referred to as broilers, chickens grown for slaughter and consumption only) creates a demand-pull strain on the chicken market, and more human capital is needed to sustain the growing demand. It is found that immigrant labor supply, due to its elastic tendencies, is utilized to meet production demands. In doing so, real wages for livestock workers increase, and per pound prices for poultry decrease. Overall, the native population’s tendency to view poultry as a normal good drives the market to demand more workers. Reservation wages for native workers are too high to attract native workers, so immigrant laborers, motivated to seek higher wages, flow into the host country to seek higher income. To continue to attract more immigrants, wages increase slightly—although at a much lower rate than if immigrants were not available. This study helps to clarify the complex economic relationship between immigrants and their host country and can be applied to other economic markets.


The purpose of this study is to question the effect of immigrant labor entering the United States on the American economy. More specifically, this study uses American poultry farms as a microeconomic vessel to test the models of immigrant labor presented. The study seeks to explore the economic implications of exchanged immigrant labor and examine who wins and who loses in a global labor market.

To examine the implications of immigrant and native-born labor relationships, the researcher collected employment, composition of labor, and wage data about poultry farms. Agriculture is, and has been for a significant amount of time, heavily driven by both high capital and high physical labor demands and is a popular occupation for migrant workers. The researcher examined several American poultry farms to find answers to immigration questions using annual data posted by the National Agricultural Workforce Survey (NAWS) and the USDA Farm Labor Survey.

Through statistical analysis of both the NAWS and USDA Farm Labor Survey, the researcher looked at several significant relationships between aggregate income, real wages for livestock poultry workers, production of broilers, and real prices of broilers, compared to the percentage of non-native labor in the agricultural labor market. With data collected from 1987 until 2013, the researcher found significant relationships between the variables. Aggregate income, real wages, and production of broilers increased when the percent of immigrants in the labor supply increased. The real prices of broilers fell when more immigrants were working in the agricultural labor supply. The Data and Methods section provides more information about the relationships between these variables.

Labor-rich countries, like Mexico, have a comparative advantage in producing labor (Brauw, 2017). Allowing immigrant labor to flow freely will benefit both economies far more than economies in autarky. This study found that the labor supply of native workers is less elastic than the immigrant labor supply. The more elastic labor supply allows farm owners to substitute native labor for immigrant labor to drive down cost. In doing so, the wages for native workers decrease; however, the overall wages for immigrants rise, continuing the flow of immigrants into the worker labor supply. This increases the benefit to native farm owners, native consumers, and immigrant workers.

The researcher finds that immigrants not only increase the income of poultry farm owners, but they expand the country’s production possibility frontier and drive down cost. The cost of immigration is the decreased wages of native-born workers.


The researcher hypothesizes that the influx of labor from lower-capital countries—like Mexico—is a stock-flow reaction to the higher wages per capita in capital-driven countries, like the U.S. These higher wages are due to the demand-pull constraint of a rising demand for chicken. The researcher hypothesizes the following points. First, the increase in immigrants as a percent of the total labor market decreases chicken prices. Second, chicken is a normal good and the production of broilers increases alongside national aggregate income. Third, wages for all livestock workers increase as a response, attracting and retaining immigrant laborers. Fourth, the rising percentage of immigrant labor raises wages for native laborers at a slower rate than that of immigrant laborers. Fifth, the native-born supply is more inelastic than the immigrant labor supply.

In allowing for free-market migration, the researcher hypothesizes that the importation of cheaper labor increases the marginal benefit for farm owners and consumers in the host country.

The Peterson-Bohanon Immigrant Model

One reason that the United States has immigrants is because Americans demand chicken. The National Agricultural Workforce Survey and the Cornell/USDA Periodic Agricultural Reports data allow several relationships to be formulated. Figure 1 shows the economic model that explains the relationships between less capital-allocated production countries and more capital-allocated production countries, illustrating why immigration is a conundrum.

In autarky, the fixed labor supply of a more capital-allocated production country—like the United States—is represented by LSNative. In a more capital-rich country with more opportunities for higher wages, the labor supply of native livestock workers is assumed to be less elastic than the labor supply of workers in a less capital-rich country in the short-run.

Information gathered from the NAWS and USDA regarding the production and price of broilers from 1987 to 2013 shows positive increases in the production of broilers from 1980 to 2016. Using this steady increase in production and U.S. aggregate income data from the U.S. Census, it is found that when aggregate income increases, production increases by .83 pounds, meaning chicken broilers are a normal good—production increases because demand increases.

As the demand for chicken rises alongside the aggregate income, the labor market for poultry workers experiences a scarcity in short-run autarky. This is a demand-pull for both the chicken market and the labor market for broiler production. As the demand for chicken pulls the production of broilers, the need for additional labor arises. Without the addition of immigrant labor, the production of broilers to meet domestic demand would be insufficient—both the consumer and the farm owner would suffer from higher prices for chicken at the grocery store and fewer sales overall.

Figure 1 shows the relationship between an inelastic native labor supply and a demand-pull economy for chicken. As the demand for chicken rises, the demand for labor rises from DLabor to DLabor2 and the wages for native livestock workers increases from wN0 to wN3 respectively. However, due to the inelastic nature of the supply of native-born livestock workers, the production of broilers hardly changes, resulting in higher production costs which are passed to consumers.

Removing the United States from autarky creates the opportunity for immigrant labor to migrate to seek higher wages for livestock work. Due to the source country’s lack of capital richness, the labor supply of livestock workers is more elastic than the labor supply in a more capital-rich country. LSImmigrant represents the immigrating country’s labor supply.

As the demand for labor increases, the quantity of immigrant labor also increases. As the demand for labor continues to increase (because of the demand-pull for chicken), wages increase for all but at a lower rate for native workers than for immigrants. Without immigrants, the wage increase due to demand-pull would be higher for native workers. Farms begin to allocate more labor to immigrants in order to lower the costs of chicken production. This results in maximized producer and consumer benefit.

According to George J. Borjas in his paper titled “The Labor Demand Curve is Downward Sloping: Re-examining the Impact of Immigration on the Labor Market,” when the labor supply rises by 10 percent, wages are reduced by 3 to 4 percent for native workers. The competitive worker experiences labor substitution, as long as work and skill level are comparable and held constant (Borjas, 2003).

The Peterson-Bohanon Model assumes that the labor supply is not fixed. If it were, immigrants would be sharing farm tools since no new tools are being added to the market, thus making the existing worker far less productive at harvesting chicken (Lewis, 2017). Labor supply cannot be fixed (Borjas, 2003; Chiswick, 2000; Lewis, 2017). A more effective way to evaluate immigrants’ effect is to evaluate the relative quantities of types of workers: workers of low, medium, or high skill (Lewis, 2017). For the Peterson-Bohanon Model, the researcher examined only low-skilled workers in the context of livestock farming. Figure 1 assumes the native labor supply is perfectly inelastic for illustrative purposes. Any rate where the native labor supply is less elastic than the labor supply of immigrants will produce similar results.

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Understanding Immigration as a Stock-Flow System

Imagine a twenty-gallon bathtub filled to the top with water. To understand the effect of immigration, one can refer to the tub to see the stock and flow mechanics of immigration. Now, imagine the tub with a nozzle and a drain that one can control. If someone were to turn the nozzle on and fill one gallon of water into the tub per minute—without opening the drain—the tub would eventually overflow. Now, imagine that someone turns the nozzle on to one gallon per minute and opens the drain to let water flow out of the tub at one gallon per minute. Naturally, the water level would remain constant at twenty gallons. In fact, any difference between the rate at which the water enters the tub and the rate at which the water is released from the tub greater than zero results in the water overflowing the tub. Additionally, any difference between the nozzle fill rate and the drain discharge rate that is less than zero would result in the tub being drained completely. Mathematically, the formula for water displacement is as follows:

Rate of Nozzle (N) – Rate of Drain (D) = Rate of Difference (R)

If R is positive, then the tub will overflow.

If R is negative, then the tub will drain empty.

To understand the implications of this analogy, labels must be assigned. Native-born laborers are the stock, or water initially in the tub, and immigrant labor is the water that enters the tub from the nozzle. When immigrant labor enters the United States, the overall supply of labor rises. As native-born laborers move to seek higher wages, they leave the labor market. Their movement out of the market is analogous to opening the drain in the tub (Wissen, 2000; Bohanon, 2016).

The rate at which immigrants enter the American poultry labor market is fickle, and dependent on several political and social factors (Abel, 2013). Assume that in the American market, poultry workers are interchangeable and free to migrate to seek higher wages. Then, poultry workers from lower-wage countries will freely enter the United States to obtain higher wages. Due to the Law of Supply, as the number of poultry workers increases, the wages for native poultry workers decrease (Abel, 2013; Bohanon, 2016; Borjas, 2003).

When the tub begins to fill with non-native, wage-seeking poultry workers, decreasing wages begin to cause the drainage of native workers from the stock. Native-born poultry workers are motivated to exit the poultry labor market by the opportunity to obtain higher wages in other labor markets (Hall, 1973). The relationship between stock and flow, immigrant labor displacing and motivating native-born workers to seek higher wages, is the crux of the historical discord between immigrants and natives and a source of conflict between political and social groups in the U.S.

Once native workers flow out of the poultry labor supply, they naturally begin to flow into new markets.

Literature Review: Mariel Boatlift Supply Shock

In 1990, economist David Card examined the supply shock of Cuban migrants into Miami. The labor supply for Miami rose by 7 percent over a short amount of time. Although there was a rapid increase in unskilled laborers in Miami’s labor supply, wages and unemployment levels did not change (Card, 1990). This lack of effect on wages and unemployment supports the stock-flow nature of the Peterson-Bohanon Immigrant Model. The low levels of stock in the labor supply for unskilled labor supported the rapid flow of immigrants into Miami. The low stock represented the scarcity of native workers due to their higher reservation wages and, ultimately, their inelastic view of unskilled work (Card, 1990).

However, an evaluation of the demographics of workers shows that low-skilled native workers actually did experience hardship when low-skilled immigrants entered the labor supply. Low-skilled native-workers experienced a decrease in wages comparable to the wage decrease described in Chiswick’s study (Chiswick, 2000; Borjas, 2015). Despite the large negative effect on wages for low-skilled workers, the wages tabulated in Card’s study showed very little effect on overall native wages (Borjas, 2015). This illustrates that the labor supply is not fixed and that the specific skill level of laborers must be taken into account in order to accurately determine the effects of immigration on native-born workers in a particular market (Lewis, 2017).

Data and Methods

The National Agricultural Workforce Survey (NAWS) is an annual federal survey conducted by the United States Department of Labor, which is intended“to monitor the terms and conditions of agricultural employment and describe the demographic characteristics of hired crop workers” (United States Department of Labor, 2017). Unlike other surveys issued by federal agencies, the NAWS only collects information directly from current employees at their places of work. The NAWS surveys individuals in crop work throughout the United States in a variety of agricultural settings.

According to the NAWS webpage on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, the following conditions for NAWS data apply:

NAWS data are limited because the NAWS sampling universe does not include: persons employed at eligible establishments who do not perform crop-related work, such as secretaries or mechanics, unless such workers also perform crop-related work; and crop workers with an H-2A visa (a temporary-employment visa for foreign agricultural workers). Additional limitations: The NAWS interviews farm workers who are currently working in agriculture. Farm workers who have been out of work for over a year are not included in the sampling frame. (United States Department of Labor, 2017)

The NAWS survey includes between 1,500 and 3,600 individuals per year. The NAWS survey also corrects for seasonal changes with multi-level sampling. The Labor Composition from 1987 until 2013 was used from this data set (United States Department of Labor, 2017).

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, an overwhelming majority of farms hiring laborers and producing agricultural goods are family farms with an annual gross cash income of less than $350,000 (USDA Economic Research Service, 2017b; USDA Economic Research Service, 2017c). Agricultural production capabilities of small family farms make up 24 percent of production. Large-scale family farms make up 42 percent of production while nonfamily farms account for only 11 percent of production (Hoppe, 2016). Additionally, family farms, which made up 90 percent of total farms in 2015, practice mixed farming techniques (Mayer, 2017; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001). Production of both crop and livestock on the same farm gave the researcher confidence in using the NAWS data. Although more specific poultry labor would be helpful, the overarching nature of the NAWS data accounting for mixed farms and the substitutability of poultry and crop work, gives the researcher additional confidence in the NAWS data.

The data for poultry prices per pound is taken from the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. The data used is from the “Economic Research Service Page” under the title of “Meat Spread.” The data extracted was a set of monthly average poultry prices in the United States, entitled “Historical Monthly Price Spread Data for Beef, Pork, and Broilers” (USDA Economic Research Service, 2017a).

The researcher took the monthly retail price data and averaged the twelve-month spread to find an annualized average from 1980 to 2016. To normalize the data, the researcher took the yearly retail price data and adjusted the data with a consumer price index calculator (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). The data uses the month of January for each year and is normalized to August 2017 terms.

The production data for broilers is extracted from the National Chicken Council website on the U.S. Broiler Production webpage. The National Chicken Council is a non-profit organization that collects poultry data from U.S. poultry farms and represents American poultry farmers in legislative efforts (National Chicken Council, 2017).

Wages for livestock workers are from the United States Department of Agriculture’s website and the Economics, Statistics and Market Information System webpage. Data is gathered from national surveys that collected wage information from livestock workers and were issued quarterly and semi-annually (National Agricultual Statistics Service, Feb 1930-May 2017). The researcher collected nationwide livestock worker wage information from 1980 until the present and then found the average yearly wage for livestock workers. The data collected included all livestock workers, including illegal workers.

To normalize the data, the researcher took the yearly wages for livestock workers and calculated their real wages for August 2017. All national wages use the month of January for each year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). This is the same calculation procedure used to normalize broiler price data.

Aggregate income information for all Americans is provided on the United States Census website in the “Historical Income Tables: Households” section of the “Data” page. The specific table used is “Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households(United States Census Bureau, 2017). The data is under the Number (Thousands) column and is adjusted for 2016 dollars.


In order to confirm the researcher’s hypothesis, the data must indicate a number of statistically significant relationships. The first indicator is a negative relationship between an increase in immigrant labor and the retail price of poultry. The second indicator is an increase in production of poultry over time with a rise in aggregate income. The third indicator is a slight increase in wages for livestock workers as immigrant labor rises as a percent of total agricultural labor. The fourth indicator is a decreasing positive relationship between aggregate income and immigrants as a percent of the workforce. In order to assure that these relationships are not simply due to time trends, time must be included and accounted for.

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The first indicator tests immigrant laborers and their effect on retail poultry prices. With no control for time, the results show a statistically significant decrease in retail poultry prices per each one percent increase in immigrants as a percentage of the total agricultural workforce. The results show a $0.02 decrease in retail poultry prices per each one percent increase in foreign labor. Additionally, the relationship between time and prices is a $0.02 decrease in retail prices per year.

When controlled for time, and tested alongside labor composition, retail prices are decreased by approximately $0.009 for every percent increase of immigrants in the agricultural workforce. Time continues to be a factor that decreases prices; however, immigrant composition continues to be a statistically significant price decrease factor as well.

The second indicator looks at production and aggregate income. Independent of time, production increases alongside an increase in aggregate income, making poultry is a normal good. Time is also statistically significant in increasing aggregate income. However, when tested with time, production of poultry remained statistically significant while time became statistically insignificant with a t-stat of -0.5277.

The third indicator examines the relationship between labor composition and wages for livestock workers. Independently, when immigrants occupied a larger percent of the labor force, wages increased. For every one percent increase in immigrant labor in the total labor force, real wages for all livestock workers rose by $0.02. When tested against time, wages also increase by a rate of $0.09 per year. Labor composition is significant depressing wages $0.02 per one percent increase of immigrants in the workforce whereas when time is controlled wages increase to $0.10.

The fourth indicator explores the relationship between immigrant agricultural workers and aggregate income. When tested independently, as immigrants increase as a percentage of the labor force, aggregate income rises. When time is tested independently, the results show a strong positive relationship between time and aggregate income. Once time is introduced, the results show that labor composition becomes insignificant with a t-stat of -0.273.  

Explanation of Results

The first indicator shows a $0.02 decrease in retail poultry price per year. It could be that this annual decrease in retail prices is due to the market’s increasing technological growth. However, when labor composition data is re-introduced, immigrants are shown to have a price-decreasing effect in the poultry market. This supports the Peterson-Bohanon Model. As immigrants enter the labor supply of poultry workers, retail prices of poultry decrease.

The second indicator solidifies the direct relationship between domestic consumers of poultry and the production of poultry. When aggregate income for domestic consumers rises, so too does their consumption of poultry as reflected by the rising production of poultry every year. When time was introduced with aggregate income, there was no statistically significant change, showing that that demand—not annual benchmarks or quotas—drives production. The significant relationship between aggregate income and production supports the Peterson-Bohanon Model idea of poultry as a normal good. The demand for chicken results in higher production and wages and pulls immigrants into the U.S. poultry workforce.

Changing the percentage of immigrants in the workforce affects the wages of all livestock workers. When tested against time, it was determined that real wages increased annually by $0.09. This could be due to the rising cost of the inelastic native worker who needs increased wages to motivate him or her to stay in the labor supply. When labor composition is re-introduced with time, wages decrease by -$0.02 when immigrant levels increase and wages increase by $0.10 over time. The negative wage tendency is a partial effect of time and labor composition. The researcher suggests that the decrease in wages, when controlled for time, is the decrease in wages of native workers over time, and that the increase in wages is the increase in wages of immigrant workers over time.

This supports the researcher’s hypothesis that overall wages are rising due to immigrant inclusion in the labor supply. As a result of the immigrant’s elastic labor supply, immigrants are filling the stock of labor needed to meet demand. They flow from their native country to the host country for better wages.

The fourth indicator shows that in the relationship between labor composition and aggregate income, labor composition becomes statistically insignificant when time is controlled. The researcher hypothesizes that this wash is due to the very large size of the aggregate income and the very small effect that the agriculture labor supply has on that income. Similar to the Mariel boatlift example where the low-skilled labor shock had only a small effect on the total native wage change, the poultry and agricultural industry plays only a small role in adjusted aggregate income in the U.S. More adjustment to aggregate income is necessary for future testing.


Immigrants are taking American jobs, but we are all better off because of it. In fact, one of the reasons immigrants are coming to American is because Americans enjoy eating chicken.

To understand the mechanics of immigration, we must ask three questions. Why do immigrants come here? What do they do to the native worker? What are the effects on the native population?

Why do immigrants come here?

Immigrants, like any other rational decision-maker, seek to maximize their benefit. In doing so, immigrants migrate to maximize their income and seek wages—preferably wages that are higher than their current wages, within their comparable skill level. Like a bathtub, the stock of water in the Mexican tub begins to drain as livestock workers start to migrate to seek higher wages. They arrive at the United States tub and begin to flow in, thus raising the stock of the laborers available. Immigrants enjoy the new previously unobtainable wages, and native workers leave to seek new wages in other markets. This goes on until the wages in both countries are the same for the same work, meaning the two tubs are balanced.

However, this study found that wages fall by $0.02 for every one percent increase in the proportion of immigrants in the total agriculture workforce. How could this be?

To understand this relationship between wages and immigrants, the domestic market for chicken must be examined. Chicken production rises when aggregate income rises, so chicken is a normal good. The continuing demand for chicken drives the production of broilers up over time, creating a demand-pull strain on the labor market for poultry workers. Poultry producers need more human capital to meet the demand for chicken. Where are they going to find it? Farm owners have two choices: native capital or immigrant capital.

What do immigrants do to native workers?

When immigrants arrive in the United States, the wages for all livestock workers, native or immigrant, rises. This is due to the nature of native-born laborers’ perception of poultry farming. The perception of the work available and the individual’s preference for leisure controls his or her motivation to join the workforce (Manski, 2014; Robbins, 1930). Naturally, one would assume that if wages are rising, a native worker would work either the same amount or hours, and the substitution effect would motivate work and allocation of time to seek more wages. Moreover, if wages are decreasing, native workers would increase the hours worked to make up for the loss of income. However, the data actually suggeststhat native workers are decreasing hours worked given a wage change, meaning their labor supply curve is backward bending (DeCicca, 2017; Rahman, 2013).

This indicates that native-born poultry farm laborers are seeing the inflow of immigrants, observing their own wages decrease, and reacting by leaving the poultry labor market. Once gone, they seek a higher or equal wage in a new market—exactly like the immigrants did. The stock-flow tub begins once again.

This movement of native laborers to new markets due to their high reservation wages supports the hypothesis that the labor supply of native-born poultry workers is more inelastic than the immigrant labor supply. This difference in elasticity is the reason that farm owners must use immigrant labor. Per the Peterson-Bohanon Model, when the inelastic supply of native workers increases costs due to higher wages, farm owners seek to reduce their costs by adding more willing labor to the total agricultural labor supply. In fact, as the demand for chicken increases, so does the ratio of immigrants in the poultry labor supply. Additionally, to entice immigrants to continue to flow into the poultry labor market, the wages that immigrants receive need to be increasing. This can explain the $0.10 increase in wages that occurs as the percentage of immigrants in the workforce rises.

What are the effects of immigrants on the native population?

Presumably, the native population will continue to demand more chicken. In doing so, they will continue to maximize the benefit of cheaper chicken as analyses shows poultry prices decrease by $0.02 per year over time. This can be due to a number of innovations, like new chicken poultry slaughter methods, GMOs, and hormonal technology (USDA Economic Research Service, 2017). The decrease in price could also include the long-run effect of immigrants entering the workforce. Additionally, when controlled for time, more immigrant labor decreases the retail prices of chicken. For every percent increase of immigrants in the labor supply, retail prices decrease $0.009.

Overall, the native population enjoys cheaper chicken and the sustained demand for chicken drives innovation and immigration. The native population also benefits from the inflow of native-born laborers seeking higher wages in new markets.

The Peterson-Bohanon Model and the results found are specific examples of the positive consequences of immigration on the native economy. The model can be used to explain the effects of immigration in a plethora of other markets. In the context of this study, poultry workers were used as a microeconomic vessel to translate these principles to the macroeconomy.

Immigrants are taking American jobs naturally, through simple stock-flow maximization. Native-workers are not motivated to work at poultry farms and are eager to give these jobs to immigrants. Simple income-leisure models show that native-born poultry workers are leaving to seek higher wages in new markets just as immigrant laborers are coming to America to seek higher wages.

In exchange for providing immigrants with jobs that native workers do not want, Americans can continue to consume more desired goods at lower prices than they would in autarky. Immigrants play an essential role in the American economy and they are motivated by higher wages in the United States. It is unjust to blame immigrants for theft if they are taking something that nobody wants.


I would like to thank Dr. Cecil Bohanon for advising me throughout the project. Without his guidance and patience, I would not have been capable of completing this thesis. I would like to thank Dr. Borris Zuhkov for his patience and time spent in his office learning and applying these principles to paper. I would like to thank Dr. Philip DeCicca for his time and support of the work I was completing. Finally, I would like to thank Ms. Melissa Jones for her editorial and grammatical assistance throughout this thesis.


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