Labor Day: Celebrating what was, and what could be

This Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen in the future, reversing current trends against working families.

As always, Labor Day is a day to celebrate Americans’ work ethic and spirit — things that hold promise for better times ahead.

But it is not a time to celebrate what has been happening in Iowa.

A look at the landscape for working families shows this Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen a year, two years, maybe 10 years from now.

Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused. Iowa’s minimum wage is a measly $7.25 an hour and has been held there for 10 1/2 years; some 400,000 workers — and their families — could gain with a raise to $12. (IPP report, 2016) Twenty-nine other states have acted, including all but two of Iowa’s neighbors.

In the middle, Iowa as usual lags the region and the nation, as IPP Senior Research Consultant Colin Gordon showed in a wage update for The State of Working Iowa.

Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:

Colin Gordon

“(T)he wage structure in Iowa is more compressed than it is nationally or in the Midwest. Low-wage workers in Iowa make about the same as low-wage workers everywhere else, but at the higher wages, Iowa workers fall further and further behind. Higher wage jobs are scarcer in Iowa than in most states. And wages in many professions — such as nursing or teaching — trail national and regional peers by wide margins.

“The key point here is not just that wages have stagnated, but they have done so over an era in which the productivity and educational attainment of Iowa workers have improved dramatically.”

If the wage levels weren’t lagging enough already, policy makers have utterly failed Iowa workers by refusing to assure that wages owed are actually paid. Wage theft — refusing to pay wages owed, or violating overtime and employee classification rules — is winked at by a state system that devotes too few resources to enforcement. Lawmakers have refused to act.

Lawmakers deliberately smacked working people with significant legislation in the last General Assembly in at least two other areas:

•   They curtailed collective bargaining rights of public employees, making it tougher for them to organize, and tougher for them to negotiate. In the arena where the state, counties, cities and schools should be leading by example on how to treat employees, the Legislature has chosen to push Iowa toward a race to the bottom. And make no mistake about the impact on the economy: Public-sector jobs are 1 in 6 of all jobs in the state.

•   They also passed legislation to erode workers’ protection and financial security long provided through Iowa’s workers’ compensation law. A study of the effects of one change, reclassifying shoulder injuries, found that the typical worker with such an injury could expect to receive 75 percent less under the new rules.

On top of these, we see the University of Iowa unilaterally acting to eliminate, or eliminate funding for, its own Labor Center that serves thousands and helps Iowans understand what rights they have in the workplace.

And we can count on a continuing assault on Iowa’s strong and accountable public employees’ retirement plans — not to help employees or actually save money, but to feed the ideological drive against public services that is illustrated in examples above. How better to damage those services than to lessen the attraction of jobs that provide them?

Celebrate Labor Day for the people who work to make our nation great. Keep in mind throughout the day that forces are trying to undermine the security of working families — and that Iowans can come together behind policies to support all.

Think of how much better that Labor Day burger off the grill will taste — in some future year — with a side of responsible minimum wage and workplace protection laws, topped off with a stronger economy that will result as more Americans prosper.

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

 

Eye on the ball: Wages and the cost of living

Public policy debates now and on into 2019 should keep this fact in focus: Working families in Iowa must earn substantially above the official poverty threshold just to get by.

 

 

 

Our 6th edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa finds that roughly 100,000 Iowa working households are unable to make basic needs.[1] Put another way, about 17 percent — or 1 in 6 — households cannot get by on their income alone. It is a critical number that should inform countless public policy discussions for the remainder of 2018 and on into the next legislative session.

Part One of this report details how much working families must earn in order to meet their basic needs, while Part Two estimates the number and proportion of Iowa working households able to earn enough. This latest edition adds new analysis by race, Hispanic origin, and gender.

These pieces provide the foundation for Part Three, which is forthcoming and will connect the dots further illustrate the importance of public work support programs for many Iowans, who despite their work efforts, are not able to pay for the most basic living expenses.

We construct basic needs budgets that represent what it takes to survive rather than thrive in the state of Iowa. These budgets include allowances for rent, utilities, food prepared at home, child care, health care, transportation, clothing and other household necessities. The basic budget does not include savings, loan payments, education expenses, any entertainment or vacation, social or recreational travel, or meals outside the home.

In Part One, we find statewide that a single parent with two children needs to earn a wage of $23.91 per hour in order to meet basic needs. A two-parent household with one child and one parent working need an hourly wage of $13.29, compared to $16.30 for the same family type with two workers. Differences in cost from one county to another can be dramatic. The total annual basic needs budget for a family with two working parents and two children was $10,600 higher in the highest cost county compared to the lowest cost county. No family type is able to meet basic needs on Iowa’s $7.25 minimum wage.

Part Two uses census data to estimate the number of Iowa working households that are able to meet the basic needs without public assistance. In 2018 we find that 17 percent of households or 227,000 Iowans live below this threshold.[2] Broken down further, fully 62 percent of single-parent working households are unable to meet basic needs. For this family type, there is an average gap of $20,000 between after-tax income and basic needs expenses. A larger share of African American (30 percent), Hispanic (28 percent), and female-headed (19 percent) households are unable to meet basic needs in Iowa.

The cost of living in Iowa continues to rise. Working families and individuals in Iowa must earn substantially above the official poverty threshold — in some cases nearly three times the poverty level — to achieve a very basic standard of living in Iowa without the help of public supports. Part Three of The Cost of Living in Iowa 2018 will show the role of work support programs in bridging this gap.

[1] The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2018 Edition, Part 1: Basic Family Budgets. Peter S. Fisher & Natalie Veldhouse, July 2018, the Iowa Policy Project. 

[2] The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2018 Edition, Part 2: Many Iowa Households Struggle to Meet Basic Needs. Peter S. Fisher & Natalie Veldhouse, July 2018, the Iowa Policy Project. 

Posted by Natalie Veldhouse, research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. She and IPP Research Director Peter Fisher are the authors of the latest edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Will local wage laws spark state action?

The question in October is a question for January: Will local minimum wage efforts force a serious debate and action on a meaningful minimum wage for Iowa?

The pressure is building in Iowa for a minimum wage increase.

Polk County last week became the latest county to take matters into its own hands as Iowa lawmakers and Congress have left the state and national minimum wages at $7.25. Four counties have now approved minimum wage increases above $10 per hour by 2019, with one of them — in Johnson County — scheduled to be fully phased in by Jan. 1.

Within several days of that, the Iowa Legislature will convene and the ball will be in state lawmakers’ court.

In the meantime, Iowans tired of the nine-year wait for an increase may keep acting locally to boost prosperity for low-income working families — which is critical as about 1 in 5 Iowa do not earn enough for a basic-needs household budget.

Here is the current local minimum-wage lineup in Iowa:

Johnson County is currently at $9.15 in the second step of its three-step increase to $10.10 on Jan. 1, indexed to inflation after that.
Linn County has approved an increase to $10.25 by 2019 (three $1 steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Wapello County will move to $10.10 by 2019 (three 95-cent steps, Jan. 1, 2017-19).
Polk County approved a wage of $10.75 by 2019 (three steps: $1.50 April 2017, $1 more in January 2018 and 2019), indexed to inflation afterward. Includes exception for workers under age 18.

There has been discussion or interest in a similar move in at least four other counties: Lee, Woodbury, Des Moines and Black Hawk. For some, this has become a county supervisor campaign issue.

The question in October is a question for January: Will the pressure of these local efforts, which are growing, be enough to force a serious debate in the Legislature on a statewide increase? And if it is, will that effort produce a wage that pushes Iowa closer to a cost of living wage? (Hint: Even $10 an hour is nowhere close.)

Stay tuned.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

On Labor Day, don’t forget single workers

Hundreds of single workers — and millions nationally — are taxed into poverty because they do not have kids and do not qualify for the EITC. And problems with child care assistance are being used to oppose a minimum-wage increase, even though the vast majority of affected workers do not have children. On Labor Day, let’s not forget the needs of single workers.

Our focus at the Iowa Policy Project frequently emphasizes the impact of public policy on working families.

But the demand of meeting a household budget is faced by more than parents, whether in single- or married-couple families. Single workers without children also need to get by.

So, on Labor Day weekend, let’s make sure the spotlight hits those folks as well. Here are three areas:

•    the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC);
•    the Cost of Living in Iowa; and
•    the minimum wage.

EITC
chuck_marr-5464A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) focuses on single working people who do not raise children and thus do not benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Childless workers under age 25 are ineligible for that benefit, notes CBPP’s Chuck Marr, who states:

On Labor Day, many of these low-wage workers will be serving meals in restaurants, ringing up back-to-school supplies at the mall, or driving a truck down the highway. They deserve a decent day’s pay for a hard day’s work, but many of their paychecks are too small to make ends meet. An expanded EITC that targets this group would do more to help deliver a decent day’s pay.

There are bipartisan proposals on the table in Washington to extend the EITC to these workers, 7.5 million of whom are now “taxed into poverty,” Marr notes. The table below shows the Iowa impacts of these proposals.

Iowa Workers helped under Obama, Ryan plans Workers helped under Brown, Neal plans
Cooks  6,000  6,000
Cashiers  5,000  6,000
Waiters and waitresses  5,000  5,000
Retail salespersons  4,000  5,000
Custodians and building cleaners  4,000  4,000
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers  4,000  4,000
Truck drivers  4,000  4,000
Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides  3,000  4,000
Maids and housekeeping cleaners  3,000  3,000
Stock clerks and order fillers  2,000  3,000
Child care workers  2,000  2,000
Construction laborers  2,000  2,000
Food preparation workers  2,000  2,000
Grounds maintenance workers  2,000  2,000
Personal and home care aides  2,000  2,000

Source: Chuck Marr blog, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

CBPP has done much work on this issue. See this earlier report and another report by Marr and his colleagues at CBPP.

Cost of Living in Iowa
2010-PFw5464As IPP’s Peter Fisher shows in Part 2 of our “Cost of Living in Iowa” report for 2016, more than a quarter of working single persons statewide (27.5 percent) do not make enough at work to meet a basic-needs household budget. In fact, for those workers who fall short, they fall more than $10,000 short, on average. It is worth noting that this basic needs gap is even more severe for single parents, who fall almost $23,000 short, on average.

Minimum Wage
One of the efforts being used to stop or hold down local minimum wage increases in Iowa is the issue of “cliff effects” in work support programs — particularly Child Care Assistance — in which benefits abruptly drop for a worker if he/she gets slightly higher pay.

This is a very real issue for some workers, but not for the vast majority of workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase statewide to $12 (phased in over five years), because they do not have children.

It makes no sense to block a wage increase for the three-fourths or more of workers who are not affected by the child care issue.

Rather, Iowa could raise the minimum wage and, separately, improve access to its Child Care Assistance program so that the cliff effects are eased or erased. There are ways to do so. See Fisher’s report with Lily French from 2014, Reducing Cliff Effects in Iowa Child Care Assistance.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

IPP’s Cost of Living: A better measure

One reason we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research is to offer a better picture than official definitions of what it takes for a family to get by.

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate than Federal Poverty Guideline

Why do we produce our Cost of Living in Iowa research at the Iowa Policy Project? One reason is accuracy — to offer a better picture of what it takes to get by, rather than a vague concept of “poverty.”

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. But those official guidelines have challenges that we address with basic-needs budget calculations in The Cost of Living in Iowa.

The federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 50 years ago.

For example, the calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food.

Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[1] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 50 years ago.[2]

Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Figure 1 below shows that a family supporting income — the before-tax earnings needed to provide after-tax income equal to the basic-needs budget — is much higher than the official poverty guidelines.

Figure 1. Cost of Living is Much Higher than the Poverty Level

Fig 1 pov guideline comp

In fact, family supporting income in the absence of public or employer provided health insurance ranges from 2.1 to 3.3 times the federal poverty guideline for the 10 family types discussed in this report. Most families, in other words, actually require more than twice the income identified as the poverty level in order to meet what most would consider basic household needs.[3]

[1] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[2] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[3] Even with public health insurance, the family supporting income exceeds twice the poverty level in all cases except the two parent family with one worker. (That family type not shown here.)
2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and author of The Cost of Living in Iowa, 2016 Edition.
Peter Fisher is a nationally recognized expert on tax and economic development policy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

 

 

Why $15? Good reasons to consider it

Beyond philosophical arguments and legal speculation, basic economic realities offer the context necessary to consider a minimum wage increase at a meaningful level — whether adopted by a city, county, state or the U.S. Congress.

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.

150810-minwage-Fig1

Basic RGBAnother 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.

2010-PFw5464  Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Raising debate about a raise

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

$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.

2014-COL-linn-504

COL-FamilySuppWage-Region504

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