NBC's "Dateline" special titled "Children of the Harvest"  (NBC)

NBC's "Dateline" special titled "Children of the Harvest" (NBC) Credit: NBC Photo

THE SHOW "America Now: Children of the Harvest"


Twelve years ago, "Dateline" followed a pair of migrant worker families during the summer harvest, reporting that children as young as 6 were working in the fields - in flagrant violation of child labor laws. This edition returns to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where it hooks up with the Cruzes as they begin their summer cycle of heading north to the vast farm country of Minnesota.

Of particular interest to "Dateline" is Ulysses, a stocky, good-natured kid who is only 10. Family patriarch Ricardo - who owns a 5-acre ranch in Texas - piles the family into a flatbed truck and heads north in May. They lose a tire along the way - it pops off while they're going over a bridge at the Nebraska border - and find little work when they get up to Durham. A new pesticide has eliminated most of the weeds in the sugar beet fields, and eliminated the need for the thousands of migrant workers, too. The summer is largely a bust for the Cruzes, who debate whether to return the following year.

MY SAY "Dateline" and correspondent Dennis Murphy reasonably condemn the use of child labor - and particularly the failure of the government to adequately police the problem. But if memory serves, the '98 telecast seemed to establish that the use of children was far more pervasive than Sunday's indicates - although cameras and crew do take a detour to a Michigan blueberry farm that uses child workers. You're left to wonder, then, whether something has, in fact, changed over the intervening years. The economic facts have not - the workers are paid by the pound (three cents, for example, for a pound of cucumbers) so the more hands engaged, the more money the family earns.

But this program ends on a far-from-pessimistic note, and one reason for that is the Cruzes themselves. They are decent, hardworking, uncomplaining and stoic. And, if this portrait is complete, happy and hopeful as well.

BOTTOM LINE Solid, sober, well reported and even a surprise ending: Optimistic.


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