Posted tagged ‘Cost of Living in Iowa’

Raising debate about a raise

April 25, 2014

$10.10vs$7.25At the Iowa Policy Project, we deal with numbers — a lot. And the numbers matter — but only because those numbers affect people.

On no issue is that more important than the minimum wage.

As we all know, Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It’s pathetic. (We’ll show why in a moment.)

It’s important to remember, Iowans considered $7.25 something of a triumph when it passed — seven years ago.

When it took effect a few months later, on Jan. 1, 2008, it put Iowa ahead of most of the country. It took another year and a half for the federal minimum wage to reach that level.

In the meantime, costs kept going up. And both the U.S. and Iowa minimum wage stayed the same. So the real question is not whether the minimum wage should rise. It’s: “How much?”

Certainly the $10.10 proposed by Senator Tom Harkin and others is a good start. It chips away at the bills. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that even then, people will be working full time in jobs that do not pay enough for them to get by.

Peter Fisher and Lily French show why with their “Cost of Living in Iowa” research for IPP. For example, in Linn County and the Cedar Rapids area, if you make $7.25 an hour and work a full-time job 50 weeks a year, you make $14,500 before taxes. As our analysis shows:

•  In Linn County, you need more than that whether you are single or married with kids.

•  In the Cedar Rapids metro area — covering Linn, Benton, Jones, Iowa and Cedar counties — a single mom with one child needs to make $20.17 an hour. For a married couple with two kids, the family-supporting wage is $16.43 for each parent. And for all other families with kids, a parent needs to make over $20 an hour.

So the minimum wage matters. The only problem is, it doesn’t matter enough.

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Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Basic needs and the minimum wage

April 10, 2014

Basic RGBWorking full time is no guarantee that your family will be able to get by.

In fact, 1 in 6 Iowa households with a worker earned less than is needed to support a family at a very basic level. That is the finding of a report released Wednesday by the Iowa Policy Project.

The new report, part 2 of the 2014 edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa, used census data to estimate how many families earned less than is needed to pay for a no-frills basic standard of living – covering rent, food, transportation, child care, clothing and health care.

In all, at least 100,000 Iowa families earn less than the basic needs budget amount (reported in part 1 of the Cost of Living report). For those families, the average shortfall – the break-even income amount minus what they actually earned – was over $14,000.

So how would an increase in the minimum wage help such a family? A full-time wage earner at the current minimum wage of $7.25 would see an increase of almost $6,000 in annual income if the wage were raised to $10.10, as Senator Harkin and others have proposed. That’s a pretty good chunk of the average $14,000 shortfall facing these families.

The situation facing Iowa’s single-parent families is much bleaker. Almost 3 in 5 – over 27,000 families – fall short of the basic needs level of income despite working at least half time, and 29 percent earn less than half the break-even level. The average working single parent’s earnings fall over $21,000 short of what is needed. High child care costs are responsible for much of that shortfall.

How do such families get by? Some move in with relatives or find short-term strategies to survive, but many rely on work supports such as food assistance, hawk-i or Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act subsidies for health care, and the state’s Child Care Assistance program.

Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if Iowa’s low-wage employers followed the lead of Costco and others and quit using these public supports to subsidize their low wages?

An increase in the minimum wage makes all employers responsible for providing something closer to what is needed for a worker to get by in today’s world. Even a single person living alone needs in excess of $13 an hour to pay the bills.

We need to strengthen our work supports in Iowa as well. Child Care Assistance in particular needs to be reformed. We have one of the lowest eligibility ceilings in the country: At an income well below what any family needs to get by, assistance is eliminated.

And we make it difficult for the thousands of students who are parents to work part time while going to school part time to qualify for child care assistance at all. Still, employers need to do their part to make work pay.

Working full time shouldn’t leave a family in poverty.

Peter Fisher

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Minimum wage — why Iowa is behind

March 3, 2014

When we start talking about raising the minimum wage in Iowa the most important point is that we’ve been at $7.25 since Jan. 1, 2008, more than a year before the federal minimum rose. And every year that goes by without an increase affects Iowa families who are struggling to keep their heads above water. Families that count on minimum wage income for a major share of their household budget have seen their costs rise dramatically over the past six years.

In both Iowa and in Congress, there are proposals to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. In both Iowa and in Congress, many issues are raised to cloud what is really a pretty straightforward issue.

As we have shown in our most recent Cost of Living in Iowa report, the current minimum wage doesn’t even come close to paying the bills. A single parent with two children working a full-time job would need to make $28.11 per hour just to be able to pay for a basic, no-frills monthly budget; $56,212 annually before taxes and credits. Two-parent families with two children would each need to make $16.93 an hour or a combined total of $67,724 a year before taxes and credits. A single parent with two children working full time making $7.25 per hour is making $4,700 below what the federal government deems poverty for a family of this size and nearly four times less than what is needed for a family supporting hourly wage.

Basic RGBThirteen states have already seen an increase this year and now 21 states and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage than the federal. As these states have shown, there is no reason to wait for Congress because it’s not guaranteed that they are going to act in the near future.

One of the myths we hear is that increasing the minimum wage would lead to serious job losses — but the weight of the evidence shows that the net employment effect is minimal and that any slight loss of jobs is compensated by the increase in income for those low-wage families. Low-wage workers who see a wage increase are more likely to spend that additional income immediately, which puts more demand on goods and services and more money in the hands of small-businesses owners who may need to hire more people to keep up with that demand.

A prominent study last year by the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains why this employment effect is so small. Employers can adapt to wage increases through various channels. Employers might reduce the number of hours worked, for example, but the higher pay can raise the standard of living for affected employees. Higher pay can make it easier to find and keep employees; less employee turnover reduces training costs. There could be reductions in non-wage benefits, improvements in efficiency, higher demand from increased consumer spending, and employers may start upgrading the skill level of their workforce rather than cutting the level of their staffing. Employers might pass on some added costs as higher prices to consumers, but this increase is estimated to be very small.

On one point there can be no dispute: A higher minimum wage will substantially lift the earnings of low-wage workers and families will be better off. Now at six years, how long will the minimum wage be held down for families facing higher and higher costs?

  IPP-gibney5464Posted by, Heather Gibney, Research Associate 

We promise: We won’t cook burgers

July 18, 2013
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

So, McDonald’s and VISA have teamed up to tell low-wage workers how to make ends meet.

We have a proposal for McDonald’s and VISA: Leave economic and policy analysis to us, and we won’t compete with you on burgers and debt.

The McDonald’s/VISA plan is ironic on two fronts.

First, McDonald’s is an example of a low-wage employer — the folks who have profited mightily while their employees have not. In fact, the McDonald’s/VISA plan expects the worker to have two jobs, to make ends meet on an unrealistically low budget and have money left over — “spending money,” the plan happily calls it. That “spending money” would have to cover all food, among other things.

As Iowa Policy Project research has shown, the cost-of-living assumptions by McDonald’s are too low. A bare-bones budget for a single person in Iowa with no kids is just over $20,100 (2011 figures), requiring a job that pays about $24,000 before taxes. It assumes absolutely nothing for eating out (even at McDonald’s), let alone saving for school or retirement.

Second, McDonald’s/VISA doesn’t assume any cost of consumer credit for debt incurred, other than a car payment. VISA depends upon low- and middle-income folks taking on debt and seeing it pile up. Sometimes it’s consumer debt, but debt also can come from health-care out-of-pocket costs when your budget is on the edge. This is a very real cost for low- and middle-income families, and it can be made even worse with predatory lending practices that are dealt with feebly by state and federal lawmakers.

McDonald’s/VISA’s tortured compilation of expenses, it should be noted, comes fairly close to the one-person, total basic-needs budget we computed for 2011 — but a single person without kids would not come close to making that total budget by following the McDonald’s/VISA plan. Add child-related expenses, and — whoa! — there’s a fire in the kitchen!

McDonald’s and VISA also include some handy money-saving tips in their brochure to help low-wage workers get by, like riding your bike to work. How about these tips for saving money: Don’t eat out, and tear up your VISA card.

Click here to see how our researchers — Peter Fisher, Lily French and Noga O’Connor — came up with our numbers. Setting money aside for savings? Not possible. Health insurance at $20 a month? Actual insurance and out-of-pocket costs are far greater. The idea of having “spending money” left over? Laughable at best.

From “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” on IPP website

From “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” on IPP website

But none of this is funny. It illustrates that in the real world, choices for working people in Iowa are often about how to make ends meet when income falls short. And that is the situation for about three-fourths of single-parent families and about 23 percent of all families in our state.

Instead of assuring better ways to boost income, including a higher minimum wage, much of the public policy discussion is focused on cutting back supports such as food and energy assistance, not to mention Social Security, and holding down child-care assistance. We don’t seem to recognize the need for a living wage, however that may be computed. In the end, are we even willing to support a low-wage economy?

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Why SNAP matters: Wages aren’t always enough

July 11, 2013
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

It’s really quite amazing what kind of arguments people will use to beat up poor people.

Such an example is in the comments section of a story in today’s Des Moines Register about the debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as Food Stamps.

One writer, in playing to SNAP opponents, is pushing the idea that two full-time jobs at minimum wage lift a family above poverty according to the current administration. In that case, the writer implies, food assistance isn’t needed.

Let’s take a look at the actual numbers and what they mean. It’s not heavy lifting.

Actually the federal poverty guidelines as established have been consistent — and consistently faulty — through several administrations. They are seriously outdated and underestimate what is necessary to make ends meet.

The official poverty level for a family of four in 2013 is $23,550. Does anyone seriously believe a family of four can make it on that kind of income? Rent, food, clothing, utilities — the basics of just getting by — cost more than that in real life.

The Iowa Policy Project has looked at this issue and is constantly updating a more reliable estimate of what it costs to get by — our report, “The Cost of Living in Iowa,” is available on our website with county-by-county numbers that reflect this cost for varying family sizes.

You can quickly see how two minimum-wage jobs don’t get the job done.

A bare-bones family budget for a four-person family in the Des Moines area is — conservatively — $37,886 for one working parent. (Table below). That assumes $3,157 per month for clothing, household expenses, food, health care, rent and utilities, and transportation. If a second parent works you add more transportation costs, plus child care, which becomes the second-largest expense.

Next, figure in taxes — yes, they pay taxes, and a lot as a share of their income — and you get what it takes for a family just to get by. So, this absolutely no-frills budget, with no savings for school or a home or retirement, not even burgers at McDonald’s, rings up at $39,122 before taxes for one working parent, $58,520 for two.

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And that means jobs that pay $14.63 an hour for each working parent, or $19.56 if one works.

Yet, at the $7.25 minimum wage, two jobs would pay $30,160. So much for the argument that two minimum-wage jobs per family solve poverty.

This helps to show why the meager Food Stamp benefit of about $1.25 per person per meal is such an important support for Iowa’s low-income working families. But while we’re at it, we could start talking about a higher minimum wage. Another day, perhaps.

Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Why the minimum wage matters

February 13, 2013
Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Heather Gibney

It doesn’t take long after someone proposes an increase in the minimum wage — as President Obama did in his State of the Union message — to hear the same, tired arguments against it.

Rather than repeat them, and the bad economics behind them, it’s important to put the minimum wage in the context of the cost of making ends meet. It doesn’t come close — which means two things: (1) the wage itself needs to keep pace with increases in typical household costs, and (2) to fill gaps between the wage and the cost of basic needs, and to encourage people to work, we can through public policy offer work supports, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as assistance with the costs of food, health care and child care.

The Cost of Living in Iowa analysis by the Iowa Policy Project last year provides a look at just how far short a $7.25 hourly wage would fall for a single parent even working two full-time jobs. It would not come close to paying the bills without work-support programs. Note these estimates in the accompanying table (Table 3 from that May 2012 report) of a basic-needs, no-frills household budget for a single-parent family of two or three.

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The national minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased in almost four years — and in Iowa it’s already been over five years, as the state’s $7.25 minimum took effect in January 2008. Prices are higher than they were then, and employers cannot be counted upon to raise pay for minimum-wage workers without the stick of wage-and-hour laws. That is why there’s a minimum.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate


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