Long way to King’s goal

Persistent segregation, plus deindustrialization and declining in job quality across the region, has created stark and sustained obstacles to equal opportunity and equal outcomes.

As we mark Martin Luther King Day, it is also worth underscoring just how far we need to travel — in Iowa and in the nation — to achieve Dr. King’s aspirations of true and substantive racial equality.

Nationally, the last half-century has seen some progress in African-American educational attainment, wages, and incomes. But gains on other fronts — including home ownership, wealth, unemployment, and incarceration — have been elusive.

Regrettably, Iowa (and its upper Midwestern neighbors) remain among the starkest settings for racial inequality across a number of dimensions. Historically, Midwestern and rustbelt metropolitan areas have always been among the segregated places to live. Indeed black-white segregation in Iowa’s metro areas has persisted across the last generation and — in the Iowa City metro — has actually worsened since 1990. This, coupled, with the sustained impact of deindustrialization and declining in job quality across the region, has created stark and sustained obstacles to equal opportunity and equal outcomes.

The result is a jarring juxtaposition: While Midwestern metros (Des Moines, Madison, Minneapolis) typically crowd the “best places to live” lists, they are also among the very worst places to live for African-Americans. In one recent analysis, ranking the states by an index of racial inequality, Iowa and its immediate neighbors (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Illinois) were the top (worst) five states.

Below, I have calculated Iowa’s position (rank among the states) across five key dimensions. For poverty, income, unemployment, and homeowners I used the Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey (pooling five years of data, given the size of the African-American sample in Iowa, provides a more reliable estimate); for rates of incarceration, I rely on the ongoing work of the Sentencing Project.

Here are the results:

1.  Although Iowa’s unemployment rate is low, the white-black gap is persistent. At 7.2 percent, the African-American unemployment rate is more than double the rate (3.2 percent) for white Iowans (2013-17). We are one of 16 states to reach this dubious threshold; the ratio of white-to-black employment in Iowa is the eighth worst in the country.

2.  African-American household median income in Iowa ($30,505) is barely half white household income. On this measure, we rank seventh worst in the country.

3.  On poverty, the disparity is even starker. The African-American poverty rate in Iowa (34.1 percent) is more than triple the white poverty rate (10.0 percent). We rank sixth worst in the country.

4.  Almost three quarters (74.1 percent) of white Iowan heads of households own their homes, almost triple the rate (27 percent) for black heads of household. On this metric, Iowa has the seventh worst disparity in the country.

5.  One of every 17 black men in Iowa are in prison, a rate of incarceration that is the third worst (behind only Vermont and Oklahoma) in the country. The ratio of black-white incarceration in Iowa is 11.1: 1 (for every white adult in prison there are 11.1 black adults in prison), again ranking third worst (behind Wisconsin and New Jersey).

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. A professor of history at the University of Iowa, Gordon also has authored IPP’s State of Working Iowa reports. Contact: cgordonipp@gmail.com

For starters, issues to watch in 2019

There are many issues to watch in the new Iowa legislative session. Here is a non-exhaustive list, identifying where policy changes could affect opportunity for many thousands of Iowans.

With the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature officially underway, the Iowa Policy Project is a dependable source for quality information and analysis on Iowa’s most pressing policy challenges. IPP’s Roadmap for Opportunity project will highlight and clarify many of these challenges as they emerge. Among issues to watch:

Public funds for private schools

Vouchers or “education savings grants” stand to take more money away from public schools and add to the $66 million Iowa taxpayers pay every year to support private education. Funding for Iowa’s public schools has failed to keep up with rising costs. Underfunded schools impact student development and workforce potential. Read more in our Roadmap piece, “Strengthening public education, no new subsidies to private schools” and the accompanying backgrounder, “Taxpayer support of private education in Iowa.”

Unemployment compensation

Unemployment insurance is an important program that supports workers experiencing temporary unemployment and acts as a macroeconomic stabilizer during economic downturn.[1] Because states are granted flexibility in shaping the program, there lies potential to undermine it, as other states have recently. More to come on this issue.

Attacks on public pensions

Maintaining a strong public pension system in Iowa ensures that we are able to attract and retain quality state employees who teach our children and protect our communities. It is important that Iowa wards off attempts to restructure the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) in ways that erode retirement security. For more, read our Roadmap piece, “IPERS works to boost retirees, economy.”

Further tax cuts

During the 2018 session, legislators passed a package of tax changes that largely benefit wealthy Iowans, with 2.5 percent of Iowa earners taking nearly half of tax cuts. The current administration has signaled support for further cuts that would endanger services that promote thriving communities such as education and healthcare. Read more on “What real Iowa tax reform would look like.”

Protecting Iowans’ health

Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system continues to cut off patient care and miss payments to providers. With little hope of returning the program to state control anytime soon, we must ensure that cost savings are achieved by increasing innovation and efficiency, not by undercutting health care providers or denying services to the sick and disabled. We should also stay away from Medicaid work requirements, which lead to disenrollment and additional barriers for elderly and disabled Iowans without meaningfully improving employment.[2] For more, read out Roadmap piece, “Restoring success of Iowa Medicaid.”

As noted above, this is not an exhaustive list — only a start. Stay up to date on our analysis through Facebook, Twitter, and our email newsletter.

[1] Chad Stone and William Chen, “Introduction to Unemployment Insurance.” July 2014. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/12-19-02ui.pdf

[2] Center for Law and Social Policy, “Medicaid Works: No Work Requirement Necessary.” December 2018. https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/medicaid-works-no-work-requirement-necessary

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Open Letter to Grinnell College

We could not in good conscience patronize campus facilities to discuss our work to advance economic opportunity and justice for all Iowans when a serious threat to workers’ rights was being mounted in front of us.

An Open Letter to the President of Grinnell College

The Iowa Policy Project Board of Directors met Tuesday in Grinnell. This would not normally be particularly noteworthy, but circumstances are not currently normal in Grinnell.

Grinnell College is a true asset to the state of Iowa, a private college with a strong educational reputation. Our organization has enjoyed holding our board meetings on the college campus in recent years, but this week decided we could not in good conscience patronize campus facilities and chose to relocate our scheduled meeting to a nearby off-campus restaurant.

We are deeply disturbed that the college’s leadership has so far refused to honor the results of a recent election in which student workers exercised their legal right to indicate their desire to bargain collectively with their employer. We were even more deeply disturbed that December 10th, one day prior to our meeting, the college took the extreme step of attempting to deny Grinnell student workers any rights as employees, via an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board. With this move, college leaders signaled their clear intent to trigger a federal Board decision that they know could in turn strip rights from millions of college and university employees (if they also happen to be students) across the country.

The college’s position matters to us because it matters for Iowa and the nation. We cannot promote the work our organization does to encourage economic opportunity and justice for the people of our state — including the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain — and ignore a serious threat to those rights being mounted right in front of us.

We wish the college, its students, administrators, instructors and staff the best, and hope we will be able to return to campus for our next meeting upon learning the college has reversed its position.

Mike Owen
Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Tuition rising: Do students approve?

As I spoke to a University of Iowa finance class this week, I wondered: Did they vote?
I showed these students data on a variety of issues, closing with the reversal from state support to tuition as the largest share of funding Iowa universities, an issue affecting most if not all of the class. Here is what it looks like for the University of Iowa:
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We have more about this in our new “Roadmap for Opportunity” series. See this two-pager.
Today, The Gazette of Cedar Rapids landed on my doorstep with a page 1 story about the Board of Regents’ plans to raise tuition 3 percent to 5 percent a year for the next five years at the UI and Iowa State University. The size of the increase will depend on new funding. An increase of at least 3 percent a year results from years of cutting.
My talk to the finance class came six days after Iowa voters retained Statehouse leadership that has forced the regents to tell families to plan on tuition increases for the next five years. The regents’ plan implicitly shows they expect more of the same from the Legislature and Governor.
I told the students that I hoped they had voted, and that they would pay attention to the impacts of public policy choices on their lives. Maybe they did, and maybe they are OK with the policy choices made, and coming.
They will be living with these impacts — student loan debt among them — long after many of us are gone. If they want something different, they will have to speak up, and they will have to do so in large numbers.
M
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tax reality: No pumpkin spice added

It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric. Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.

You find it everywhere these days: pumpkin spice this, pumpkin spice that … tax cuts this, tax cuts that. It’s so easy to overdo it — with pumpkin spice or with tax-cut rhetoric.

Keep it simple. The tax cuts are for the wealthy, and come at great cost of services while making the tax system less fair.

Just ask the Iowa Department of Revenue, which produced the following analysis in May, just before state legislators rammed their backroom tax package for the rich through both houses of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk. Yes, she signed it.

And here are the numbers behind those sections of the pumpkin above:

Put another way, almost 40 percent of resident taxpayers will get about 3 percent of the benefit of the tax cut in tax year 2021; over four-fifths of taxpayers will together see only about 26 percent of the benefit. On the other hand, the top 2.5 percent — families making over $250,000 — will receive 46 percent of the benefit.

This was a tax cut for the richest Iowans, who did not need a cut, and the bill overall will cost almost a half billion dollars in 2021.[1]

These effects have been apparent for months,[2] despite claims that are obvious distortions, according to the Department of Revenue analysis.

That analysis shows the average tax change in tax year 2021 for people making between $50,000 and $60,000 — this covers the latest median-income level of $58,570 — would be a $156 cut, or less than $3 a week. Don’t spend it all in one place. Meanwhile, the cut for millionaires would, on average, be $24,636.

By the way, the “fact checkers” who let loose-speaking pols off the hook for their exaggerations about tax cuts are often missing a critical point: Many Iowans, including some middle- and moderate-income working families, actually will see tax increases, or no change at all, if the new law is not changed.

Of course, most won’t see these effects right away, despite the promises. How convenient.

M

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org.

 

[1] Iowa Department of Revenue analysis for Legislative Services Agency, May 2, 2018

[2] Charles Bruner and Peter Fisher, Iowa Fiscal Partnership, “Tax plan facts vs. spin,” May 5, 2018, http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-plan-facts-vs-spin/

See also: “A Roadmap for Opportunity: What real tax reform would look like,” Iowa Policy Project, http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180906-roadmap-taxes.pdf

IPERS defenses are ‘care tactics’

Concerns about IPERS changes stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

IPERS, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, has come under attack in recent years for no substantive reason — only ideology and politics. Understandably, IPERS members, who number well over 10 percent of the population of Iowa, are concerned.

So, some folks are engaged in what might be called “care tactics,” to make sure the stakes on that issue are well-understood. People who care want good information, and are asking for it.

These efforts and concerns are being dismissed by those who claim there is no threat to IPERS. Political scare tactics indeed are part of the 2018 campaign on several issues — primarily taxes, as illustrated by the hair-on-fire ads on television that do more to distort than inform.

But it’s hard to make that case about pension concerns, which stem directly from leaders’ comments, proposed legislation and a longtime goal of ideologues on the right who have become more strident.

Those now dismissive of pension concerns point to recent campaign-season comments by Governor Kim Reynolds. Yet not so long ago Reynolds herself raised the prospect of some change in IPERS’ actual pension structure to a “defined contribution” or 401k-style structure for new employees.[1] Her predecessor, Terry Branstad, had made similar comments.[2] Legislation was proposed in 2017 in the Senate.[3] All of this remains fresh in the minds of those who are worried, as do efforts by others to undermine IPERS.

IPERS critics have promoted that riskier “defined contribution” structure, needlessly scaring Iowa taxpayers about Iowa’s secure IPERS system. The Des Moines Register has run such scare pieces, by Don Racheter of the Public Interest Institute[4] and by Gretchen Tegeler of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa.[5]

Neither the media nor IPERS critics have been able to explain how a separate system based on a 401k style structure — “defined contribution” — could be introduced for new employees without undermining existing and promised IPERS benefits for current members.

Contributions plus Interest investments equal Benefits plus Expenses in administration of the system— this is what is required for full funding of IPERS. If you reduce that first item, contributions, by setting new employees apart in a different plan, clearly that matters. It’s math.

In fact, it affects more than those new employees. Reducing contributions by diverting those from new employees reasonably means lower benefits — for current members!

The media and all policy makers should be asking more about this. It’s not enough to accept a “nothing to see here” argument from someone who in the recent past declared herself open to a change — especially when activists have pushed for it, and legislation has been proposed. The dismissal — not exposing it — is the “scare tactic.”

Let’s stay away from the “scare tactics,” and focus on the “care tactics.”

 

[1] Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times, “Reynolds says state looking at IPERS task force,” Jan. 26, 2017. https://qctimes.com/news/local/government-and-politics/reynolds-says-state-looking-at-ipers-task-force/article_bf76d410-c70b-5300-951c-ad1cb6bced3f.html

[2] William Petroski, The Des Moines Register, “IPERS cuts key target; unfunded pension liabilities up $1.3 billion,” March 24, 2017. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/24/ipers-cuts-key-target-unfunded-pension-liabilities-up-13-billion/99600866/

[3] O. Kay Henderson, RadioIowa, “Democrats accuse GOP of plotting that IPERS be dismantled,” December 11, 2017. https://www.radioiowa.com/2017/12/11/democrats-accuse-gop-of-plotting-that-ipers-be-dismantled/

[4] Don Racheter, Public Interest Intitute “Replace IPERS with defined-contribution plan,” The Des Moines Register, May 27, 2016. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/abetteriowa/2016/05/17/replace-ipers-defined-contribution-plan/84492576/

[5] Gretchen Tegeler, Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, “Don’t minimize Iowa’s public pension debt,” The Des Moines Register, January 16,2018, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/01/16/iowas-public-pension-debt-eclipses-other-public-debt/1035979001/; also “Public retirement systems are not ideal for young, mobile employees,” The Des Moines Register, December 8, 2016, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/12/08/public-retirement-systems-not-ideal-young-mobile-employees/95148216/

 

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

 

Revenue forecast: A confirmation of failure

Iowans need a handle on what the budget surplus means, and what it doesn’t.

With new revenue information in hand, it is apparent that:

•   Large cuts to higher education were unnecessary
•   Continuing to short-change K-12 schools was needless
•   Concerns about large tax cuts were warranted.

During the 2018 session we saw legislators craft mid-year cuts and an FY2019 austerity budget behind closed doors. The effect will be the same as it has been for several years now: Iowa lawmakers won’t have much to work with when the 2019 legislative session convenes in January due to large tax cuts, leaving tight purse strings for education.

The October 2018 Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) projections show a $127 million surplus — up $95.6 million from what was expected for fiscal year 2018, which ended in June.[1] Many in the state are searching for factors they think contributed to the surplus. In reality, the discrepancy in expected and actual revenue is related to errors in forecasting. The REC used a slower rate of growth in calculating these projections after overestimating revenues for the past two fiscal years.

A significant factor contributing to the surplus is a state revenue boost caused by new federal tax cuts, especially for higher-income families. Iowa has a special state break for federal taxes paid. But because fewer federal taxes are being withheld, additional income is subjected to state tax.

Proponents of the state tax cuts seek to attribute the budget surplus to the cuts themselves. First, it is impossible to credit the budget surplus to the 2018 state tax cuts, most of which will not take full effect until 2019 and beyond.

Second, even the REC estimates do not predict continued growth at the FY18 levels. Iowa will have already given away the FY18 surplus before the beginning of the next legislative session, because tax cuts mean less revenue. The FY20 budget will be tight. This will steer the legislative discourse to hold down K-12 spending, to push higher-ed costs toward tuition and student debt, and to threaten needed services and institutions — as the administration is doing right now to the University of Iowa Labor Center.

Sustainable budgeting requires realistic forecasts and working to help all Iowans understand the impacts of budget and tax choices. It also means generating adequate revenue to pay for essential services such as education, health care and environmental quality, and helping to create opportunity for all.

[1] Iowa Department of Management, “Iowa budget closes with higher-than-expected revenue, $127 million surplus.” September 2018.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org