If the mark of a successful town is more people coming than leaving, Worthington might be one of the most successful in the Midwest.
Population and economic growth have generally been hard to come by in rural Minnesota. But Worthington since 1990 has surged from fewer than 10,000 residents to more than 13,000. On a two-day trip to Worthington last month, there was talk the population may soon exceed 14,000.
The story here, of course, is how all that growth is due to immigrants, about a third of the people of Worthington now.
The invitation to tag along on a trip to hear about this success story came from Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari, just another of his regular visits in the six-state district served by the Minneapolis Fed.
Kashkari took pains to always say in Worthington that he came to listen, not preach, although he delivered an unmistakable message just by coming to town.
He’s in favor of economic growth. Welcoming immigrants is one good way to get that.
Kashkari’s explanation was really just orthodox economics. The basic recipe for long-term growth is simple: more people working and also more machines and technology working.
In many rural areas, more people working is becoming a mission impossible, as population growth stagnates or slips and the people who remain age out of the workforce. In Lac qui Parle County in western Minnesota, the population since 1960 has fallen by about half, and half the people remaining in the county are 50 or older, according to the latest census figures.
South of there, about two hours by car, is Nobles County, which surrounds Worthington in southwest Minnesota, and where the population is still not quite back to its 1960s peak but is growing. And the median age is younger than 36.
As a Fed president, Kashkari cares about the demographic picture nationally, too, as the American fertility rate this year hit a 42-year low and remains far below the replacement rate.
“If you do the math, there are three choices that we have as a society,” Kashkari explained, as a panel discussion got underway at the Worthington fire hall. “One choice is just accept slower growth. A second choice is to subsidize fertility. Or number three, you can embrace immigration.”
“Now the advantage we have in the U.S. is that, while we are not perfect, we are better than just about any other country at embracing immigrants and integrating them in our society.”
There were a few moments of tension for Kashkari, as you would expect with immigration policy now a hot political issue. People got that a powerful official with the federal government was in town, yet Kashkari had to gently steer clear of questions like how to remove the threat of deportation for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
His panel discussion on immigration, with Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle and human resources executive Len Bakken of the JBS USA pork processing plant, the city’s major employer, didn’t stay optimistic and upbeat all the way to the end, either.
Deep into the meeting, they first heard complaints from the audience about not enough cultural infrastructure in town, like stores for familiar foods. Another problem was how the civic institutions, like City Hall and the police force, remain almost exclusively made up of locally born white people.
One speaker rose to say that Hispanic families are keeping cash hidden rather than in a bank. It’s because, whether legal citizens or not, they no longer feel secure living in their own town, the speaker said.
There wasn’t much assurance a Fed bank president could offer to that, but Kashkari at least tried. He had been reading a lot of American history, he explained, and knew that anti-immigrant sentiment in the past seemed to rise for a while before eventually subsiding.
“I’m glad it ended that way,” said banker Greg Raymo of the First State Bank Southwest, as the meeting ended and people filed out. “Are we perfect? No. We have work to do.”
Raymo happily welcomes immigrants to southwest Minnesota, observing before the meeting started that no more families from Sweden and Germany seemed to be coming. The only reason his bank grows, he later pointed out, “is because of the immigrants who feel comfortable coming here.”
The following morning, at a roundtable for entrepreneurs, Raymo heard some complaints directed at him, or at least toward bankers.
Tara Kraft was one who spoke up. A native of Trinidad and Tobago and the principal owner of Tara’s Bridal shop and the Colonial Laundromat and Dry Cleaners, she described the herculean task of buying assets and starting businesses with absolutely no help from conventional banks.
Some of the financial people she did meet didn’t think much of her ambitions. But as she put it, “I believe in trying.”
Hers was far from the only story of entrepreneurs facing daunting challenges. Miguel Rivas only got to town by buying a folding road map in California when looking for a new place to live and randomly landing his finger on Worthington. He arrived with nothing.
He worked at different jobs before he moved into computer services. Now he owns a MetroPCS dealership.
They said starting a business isn’t easy for anyone. And yet, as car dealer Juan Palma asked, how could they be sure that some of the hurdles weren’t put up for them just because they were immigrants?
Palma Customs & Auto Sales opened in 2006, but Palma described working with his wife, Angela, on the project at least three years before opening. They made the local paper earlier this year for their plans to expand, and like other immigrants in Worthington, Palma was brimming with optimism.
“The language barrier is not as big as it was,” he said. “And the culture, we are kind of creating our own, you know?”
It’s not that the language barrier has fallen completely, and it was surprising to hear that at the JBS pork plant, there are native speakers of at least 50 languages and dialects.
The JBS plant has been there since Armour & Co. opened it in the 1960s, and it now processes about 1,100 hogs every hour. The day we took a tour was my second; the first was almost 40 years ago. The impression left this time was how fast everything moved — the processing lines and the workers.
The plant employs about 2,200 in two production shifts and an overnight shift to clean. Recruiting is a never-ending challenge. Recently, jobs started at $15.90 per hour, provided a worker came on time and didn’t miss a shift.
Over a lunch meeting with a group of bilingual employees, visitors heard about work so physically demanding that after the first shift, one young woman’s hands were so sore she could no longer move them.
The role this group of workers plays in the plant is helping explain to other workers what’s happening, as well as bringing ideas and problems to the attention of the plant’s managers.
This company doesn’t appear to be old-school paternalistic, but JBS sure seems supportive of its largely immigrant workforce, with Bakken, the HR director, lending a hand in town on projects like a new home for an immigrant community’s church.
JBS recruits through word-of-mouth in immigrant communities, Bakken said. Managers also know JBS jobs are a draw for immigrants who may stay and build a life — and maybe a business — in Worthington.
JBS supervisor Abebe Abetew came from Ethiopia, and he described landing first in the Washington, D.C., area. He drove two hours one way for a convenience-store job that didn’t pay enough to support his family. Then he learned of a welcoming Midwestern town called Worthington.
Abetew described having received a master’s degree in Africa, and he happily took his first job in Minnesota on the line in a pork processing plant. “Very hard job,” he said.
Asked by Kashkari what advice he would offer new arrivals like him, he didn’t hesitate.
“They have to start on the ground,” he said. “And see the opportunity and visualize where they are going to go.”
It’s one of the most hopeful things you will hear this year, about our state and our country.