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Farmhand Education on Weeding List

What happens to one small but lauded program after Congress makes cuts to the federal budget

ANTONIO RAMIREZ used to spend 12 hours a day under a hot sun spraying pesticides across wide swatches of vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley.

Today, his weathered fingers dance over a computer keyboard in an office building. Thanks to the federal Migrant Farm Worker Job Training program, Mr. Ramirez is learning English, studying for a high school equivalency diploma, and getting basic job interview skills. He wants to become a tractor mechanic.

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''I look at mechanics and they get paid good money. They don't have to work as hard and as fast as people in the fields,'' says Ramirez, who has two more months of studying before he will begin hunting for a new job.

Ramirez is one of some 600,000 laborers who barely eke out a living crisscrossing the United States harvesting everything from apples to zucchini. By some estimates, 60 to 70 percent are legal migrants. They are also among America's poorest residents. Incomes average $7,500 a year. Most live at the edge of the fields in makeshift shacks, old camper shells, and even caves. ''It's lousy in the fields,'' Ramirez says.

Budget austerity

But the education that the long-time farm hand hopes will help him to a different life may be in jeopardy. Under budget plans now progressing in Congress, federally funded job training programs -- including those for migrant workers -- would be reduced to 20 to 25 percent below 1995 levels by 2002.

By Washington standards, the Migrant Farm Worker Job Training budget is small change -- barely $86 million. It wins praise from lawmakers for assisting 45,000 citizens and documented migrant farm workers annually. A 1993 Department of Labor evaluation showed 74 percent of trainees in the programs landed better-paying, higher-skill jobs afterwards.

But as they search for ways to balance the budget, congressional planners are looking for savings in every nook and line item of federal spending.

Congress must stop its flow of red ink for the long-term good of the US economy, say many Republicans. Cuts in welfare, job training, and other social service programs reflect the mood in Congress to speed up the shift from taxpayer-financed federal hand-outs to greater self-reliance.

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That means even projects many consider worthy may well take big hits. By some estimates, the whole federal government, outside of defense and entitlement programs, would be reduced in size by 30 percent under GOP budget plans.

''We've made cuts in hundreds of programs and this is just one, little program,'' a senior House Republican appropriations aide says of the job-training program.

Program officials say that taking even a thin slice out of the migrant program would be enough to derail work at smaller sites, such as those that help migrant workers who pick apples and pears each fall in the Northeast.

''If we don't help people to become fit, how will they contribute?'' asks Celeste Stroud, director of the Fresno jobs program. The Fresno migrant jobs program is 100 percent federally funded, so big cuts ''could conceivably shut us down,'' she says.

Many job-training progams have some matching funding or participation from employers. But partly because these are seasonal jobs, employers of migrant workers have shown little interest in providing the training or funding.

The seven-hour a day, four-month program, pays the most needy a $2 per hour stipend. Social workers say this program is often the only way farmworkers can learn the skills needed to get better paying jobs.

And for many migrant workers the program is a turning point in their lives. ''We expose them to a lot and they just take it in,'' says English teacher Sherry Tharpe. ''Afterwards they say 'I didn't know I could be anything but a worker in the fields.''

Other social services that benefit migrant farm workers also may face reductions. Migrant child care, Head Start, school programs, food stamps, rental housing subsidies, the Women, Infant, Children feeding program and migrant community health centers are all slated for cuts or elimination.

But if federal social service programs are cut, say farmworker advocates, the migrant population living in shacks, without proper sanitation, nutrition, and health care, is likely to grow.

''The lack of adequate housing has been endemic since Steinbeck,'' says Ralph Santiago Abascal, general counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance. In 1993, the agency won a class action suit against Valley Sun Dried Products on behalf of migrant workers at Benech Farms in Santa Clara County. Workers lived in shacks, old camper shells, trailers and nearby caves without adequate sanitation, the agency said.

California's Proposition 187, which would restrict services to undocumented and illegal migrant farmworkers, is tied up in court, and it is too early to tell how competing Democrat and Republican immigration bills would ultimately affect farm laborers and their employers.

Food programs

The Parlier United Health Center, which serves migrant workers in Fresno County, currently coaxes 10,000 women per year to get pre- natal exams by promising them the eggs, butter, and cheese provided under the federal Women, Infant and Children feeding program. If WIC is reduced, director Eli Risco says, many women will not come in for their exams. ''The kids in the WIC program are healthier,'' he says.

''There is barely enough to eat,'' said Alejandra Cruz, pregnant, and layed off since December from a Fresno County cannery. The food she receives from WIC helps, she says.

Because most farm laborers are not registered to vote, there is little incentive for legislators, especially those in agricultural districts, to reach out to them.

While Congress moves forward in the budget debate, jobs program student Marco Lopez will continue to brush up his math skills. ''In our case, coming from the field,'' he says, ''we are trying to change.''

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