There can be little question that Iowa’s minimum wage — like that of the nation — is too low.
At $7.25, it doesn’t come close to a living wage, yet the data show conclusively that in a significant share of households, income from a minimum-wage job is critical to the ability of a family to make ends meet. Plus, in Iowa it has stood at $7.25 since January 2008. An increase is long overdue.
Proposals for how much it should rise, however, are all over the map — literally. Not only do 29 states have wages at various levels higher than the federal minimum, but so do a growing number of cities. Even in Johnson County in Iowa, county officials are thinking of moving to $10.10 over the next 17 months.
In our new report, “The Case for a County Minimum Wage,” we look at the impacts on households of a $15 minimum wage in Johnson County and in Linn County. We find a benefit to over 43,000 workers.
Why $15? First, recognize that it is a conservative number. Had the wage been indexed to the growth in productivity since the late 1960s, it would be over $18 now. The graph below shows how the minimum wage, average wage, and productivity have changed from 1968 through 2014. The stark gap between both the minimum and average wages and the pace of productivity illustrates how income inequality has grown so rapidly — gains are not being shared with average or low-wage workers.
Another reason to look at $15 is that it would be a significant step toward the wage needed for a basic-needs budget in many Iowa families. Our Cost of Living in Iowa analysis shows a married couple in Johnson or Linn County with one wage earner and one or two children needs a job paying $19 to $27 an hour just to pay for the basic costs of rent, utilities, food, child care, transportation, and health care. With two earners, each parent needs between $13 and $18 an hour. For a single parent, the budget math becomes more daunting, as child care costs must be paid out of a single paycheck. Now an hourly wage of $20 to $31 is needed.
Beyond the philosophical arguments about minimum wages, and speculation about whether a local minimum wage law will pass a court test in Iowa, these basic economic realities offer the context necessary to consider a minimum wage increase and to determine a meaningful level — whether adopted by a city, county, state or the U.S. Congress.