50-Mile Rule Waiver is a First Step

Julie Solomon, Ph.D.

President of the Board of Directors

Human Agenda

For decades, a California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) regulation called “the 50-mile rule” has required the residents of California’s State-sponsored migrant farmworker housing centers (currently, 24 of them) to move at least 50 miles away in the off-season. This has caused great disruption to farmworkers children’s education, as the children leave their schools a few months into the school year and return near the end of the year, resulting in educational failure, social challenges, and continued poverty. Recently, an exemption to the 50-mile rule, authored by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), was approved as part of the State’s budget “trailer bill”. This is an important step—but only a first step—toward ensuring equity and opportunity for the migrant farmworkers who provide the residents of California (and beyond) with an abundant and steady food supply.

Migrant farmworker parents, like any other parents, want their children to receive a quality education and to have the occupational, economic, and social opportunities that are associated with such education. Human Agenda, a human rights- and human needs-focused organization based in San Jose, became aware in the 2000s that migrant farmworker children were being denied access to quality education because of the 50-mile rule. In 2010, Human Agenda worked with then-Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) to introduce AB2010, which sought to keep the State migrant housing centers open all year long, so that child residents could stay in the same schools, and they and their families could have safe, subsidized housing on an ongoing basis. However, California was in a budget crisis at that time, and the fiscal implications of the bill prevented it from advancing past committee.

In 2014, with funding from the Castellano Family Foundation, Human Agenda collaborated with the Center for Farmworker Families to implement semi-structured interviews with families in the four largest State migrant farmworker housing centers in California (Williams, in Colusa County; Ochoa, in Santa Clara County; Buena Vista, in Santa Cruz County; and Parlier, in Fresno County), to learn more about the effects of the 50-mile rule. Residents of 217 units (55% of occupied units at the time) were interviewed, including 133 units with children ages 4-19. The overwhelming majority of households with children (91%) reported that they believed that the 50-mile rule was affecting their children’s education, and 97% reported that their children would benefit from the ability to finish the school year in the same school.

During subsequent years, Human Agenda, the Center for Farmworker Families, the Food Empowerment Project, and other organizations and individuals pursued both regulatory and statutory routes to eliminating or creating a waiver for the 50-mile rule. The recent approval of the State budget’s “trailer bill” included a 50-mile rule exemption, authored by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas). This will permit the migrant farmworker housing centers to request a waiver from HCD’s Office of Migrant Services (OMS) allowing up to 50% of housing units to be exempt from the 50-mile rule, if the residents of those units meet certain conditions, in turn permitting those residents to live locally—and thereby remain in the same school districts—in the off-season.

While this represents an important step toward supporting the migrant farmworker children’s right to have equal access to a quality education, it is only a first step. Currently, how the waiver will be implemented remains unclear. OMS has indicated that it will require 60-90 days to issue guidance for migrant center operators on how to request a waiver. Residents of the housing centers will need to be educated about their right to participate in the waiver and the procedures for doing so. Moreover, it appears that no funding has been allocated to keep the housing centers open year-round. Residents who obtain permission to remain locally will need to move out of the housing centers in the off-season and pay market rates for housing. With average annual earnings of just $17,500 per worker from agricultural work, most migrant farmworkers are unable to pay market housing rates in the local areas where their migrant housing centers are located.

It is high time for all of the stakeholders who benefit from migrant farmworkers’ labor, including (but not limited to) the growers who employ migrant farmworkers and the members of the public who consume agricultural products grown in California, to come to the table to develop and implement equitable and humane policies and programs that support migrant farmworkers’ rights and opportunities.



1. Ibarra N. (2018; July 6). ’50-mile rule’: migrant farmworker housing policy changed to allow children to stay in California schools year-round. San Jose Mercury News. Accessed July 30, 2018 at https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/07/06/50-mile-rule-migrant-farmworker-housing-policy-changed-to-allow-children-to-stay-in-school-year-round/.

2.Written summary of findings available on request from Julie Solomon, Ph.D.: jsolomon94022@yahoo.com.

3.Martin P, Costa D. (2017; March 21). Farmworker wages in California: Large gap between full-time equivalent and actual earnings. Economic Policy Institute. Accessed July 30, 2018 at https://www.epi.org/blog/farmworker-wages-in-california-large-gap-between-full-time-equivalent-and-actual-earnings/.