Iowa Policy Points

Fix both ‘cliff effect’ and low minimum wage

As the debate over a Polk County minimum wage continues, the so-called “cliff effect” is being cited as a reason to limit the increase in the wage. This is unfortunate. Capping the wage at a low level would hurt thousands of families, including many with burdensome child care costs.

The “cliff effect” results from the design of Iowa’s Child Care Assistance program (CCA), which pays a portion of the cost of care for low-income families. Iowa has one of the lowest eligibility ceilings in the country: 145 percent of poverty. When a family’s income hits that level ($29,120 for a single mother with two children), benefits disappear.

While most work support programs, such as food assistance, taper off gradually, with CCA you just fall off a financial cliff — the “cliff effect.”

We do need to fix that program. But the failure of state lawmakers and the governor to address the CCA cliff effect is not a good reason to forgo needed wage increases for thousands of working families. An estimated 60,000 workers would benefit from an increase to $12 an hour in Polk County; 88,000 by an increase to $15 (phased in over several years).

Of those who would benefit from a higher minimum, 36 to 38 percent are in families with children. To put the CCA cliff in context, recognize:

•     Thousands have high child care costs and incomes below 145 percent of poverty but do not receive CCA. A 2007 study estimated that only about 1 in 3 Iowa families eligible for CCA were actually receiving it. The two-thirds with low wages but without assistance still need higher wages.

•     Second, a low wage cap would not help many families barely above 145 percent of poverty, but still facing child care costs of $4,000 to $5,000 a year per child. These families, in many cases married couples with one or both working at a low wage, can’t make ends meet.

•     Third, the other 62 to 64 percent of low-wage workers do not have children, and many families whose children are older do not need child care. A cap on the minimum wage hurts all of them.

Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the cliff is not as sudden as it appears. Because Iowa moved to one-year eligibility, a family whose income rises enough to push them above 145 percent of poverty can continue to receive assistance for another year. In that time, they may find ways to adjust, such as quitting the second or third job or reducing hours or overtime, to stay eligible for CCA but have more time with their children. This is surely a benefit from a higher minimum wage.

Policies that move families toward self-sufficiency are widely supported. We want workers to increase their earnings by furthering their education, finding higher paying jobs, gaining experience that earns them promotions — and have time to care for their families.

Yes, we should fix our child care assistance program, which can penalize all of those efforts. But we should also fix a minimum wage stuck at a level well below what even a single person needs to get by. Past failures to fix one problem should not end up as an excuse to fix neither.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Related:

“Reducing Cliff Effects in Child Care Assistance,” Peter Fisher and Lily French, Iowa Policy Project, March 2014, PDF