Why SNAP matters: Wages aren’t always enough

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

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 They are seriously outdated and underestimate what is necessary to make ends meet.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

Accountability is good for tax breaks, too

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register has an interesting editorial today about the state’s voluntary preschool program. The Register is asking for accountability:

“Before lawmakers consider any new education reforms, they should ensure that the changes they made a few years ago are helping.”

Hard for anyone to argue with that. Advocates of preschool surely would not fear a legitimate review. And what better time to review and adjust a program than its early years?

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the same concept applied to Iowa’s many tax breaks for corporations? Do they do any good? There is no evidence that they do for the most part, a fact ignored routinely by the Iowa General Assembly and our Governors past and present, but they just keep on going. The idea of a review of tax breaks only gets lip service from most lawmakers; there are no serious reviews and no teeth in state law to require them.

The Research Activities Credit alone is a program crying out for this kind of scrutiny, a point clear from the few details that are available (See http://www.iowafiscal.org/2012research/120221-IFP-RAC.html). Unlike the preschool program, in which 9 out of 10 Iowa school districts participate, the RAC is used by a relative handful of companies in Iowa, well under 200, and is dominated by less than 10.

The money is not all that different: $58 million in 2011-12 for preschool through the state formula vs. almost $48 million for the RAC in 2011 — with $45 million of that paid in “refund checks.” These are not refunds of taxes paid, and they don’t even reduce taxes. Instead, millions go to big corporations such as Rockwell Collins, Deere and DuPont that owe so little in income tax that their tax credits are far above the amount of taxes they owe.

What’s good for the goose of preschool is certainly good for the gander of tax breaks.

//EDITOR’S NOTE: The next annual report on the use of the Research Activities Credit is due Feb. 15 from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Stay tuned!//

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer it for ourselves.

Does Iowa have the will to govern itself?

How ironic that we have reason to ask that question, a week after a presidential election that capped three-plus years of courting of Iowa voters, and a few days before a potential 2016 candidate visits to start all of it brewing again.

Yet the question is unavoidable. Consider two pieces in today’s Des Moines Register.

First, the Register reports, the federal Environmental Protection Agency may take over water quality enforcement in Iowa due to weak efforts by Iowa’s state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As IPP’s David Osterberg recently told EPA officials to hold DNR more accountable because the state is underfunding water protection.

“EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. … There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.”

If the EPA admonishment of Iowa’s lax environmental enforcement were not enough, we also are waiting for the state to offer its long-overdue decision on how to proceed on health reform. The 2012 election affirms the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed, so the state’s dragging its heels on creating a health insurance exchange no longer makes sense — if it ever did.

Yet, we now have a real question of whether it’s a good idea for the state to move ahead on its own with an exchange, where Iowans can shop for affordable insurance and not be denied coverage, or having the federal government do it for us. As the Register opined in an editorial today, “It is too important for this state to mess up.” Citing problems implementing temporary high-risk pools, and political dealings in previous legislative attempts to create an exchange, the Register noted:

“Iowans need the coming insurance marketplace to work for them in years to come. But state leaders have shown they are not the ones to design it.”

Can we govern ourselves? Apparently national candidates will come calling in Iowa without worrying about that. So maybe we should answer if for ourselves.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Does Iowa know when to walk away?

You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

There’s Texas Hold ’Em,” and then there’s “Iowa Fold ’Em.”

Wouldn’t you just love to play poker against the folks who run this state?

They never call a bluff. Companies come calling with demands for tax breaks and big checks, or they’ll build somewhere else. And Iowa just happily falls in line with the demands. You can almost hear Kenny Rogers singing in the background: “Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The latest: Today the board of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is scheduled to consider sweetening its already generous offer to Orascom — $35 million to build a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County — to about $110 million with a slew of new tax credits. As The Des Moines Register points out today, that’s $110 million for 165 “permanent” jobs paying on average $48,000 a year, plus construction jobs that will be gone when the project is finished.

The state tax credits are in addition to the enormous benefit the state is providing by allocating federal tax-exempt flood recovery bonds to this project. If the interest rate difference — between taxable and tax-exempt bonds — were 1 percentage point, the company would save $320 million in interest payments over the life of the $1.2 billion bond. That would bring the firm’s total benefits to $2.7 million per permanent job, a truly astounding number. Even without considering the federal interest subsidy, the state tax credits would total $687,500 per job, many times the typical level of subsidy in deals such as this.

There are no estimates available about the potential environmental costs that will be caused by this plant. Since Iowa does a poor job of monitoring for pollution damage, those ongoing costs might be low, but if there is an accident, it could be costly.

The Register also quotes Debi Durham, head of IEDA, that incentives wouldn’t be needed if Iowa were to reduce corporate income tax rates. Nonsense. Research has shown repeatedly that this is a myth, and that in fact, Iowa’s income taxes paid by corporations are competitive with other states. In many cases, giant corporations are paying not a dime in income tax yet getting huge subsidy checks from the state to do things they would do without incentives.

This hand is the one we are dealt from years of unaccountable economic development strategies by Iowa state government.

Time for a fresh deck.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Who would take Governor’s deal?

Why are state employees the Governor’s target? Revenues are up, and the Governor is happily giving away millions to companies that don’t pay income tax. Why should state workers take a $1,000 pay cut?

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

There’s a little gamesmanship about public-worker benefits this week that is avoiding a critical question: How will the state compensate workers for giving up negotiated health benefits?

Governor Branstad on Monday repeated his plans to push for a 20 percent premium contribution by state employees in the next contract, putting out a pledge to pay that amount himself right now. For the Governor it’s $224 per month.

IPP’s Andrew Cannon has done a good job of exposing the fact that public worker health benefits in Iowa, while more generous than those offered in the private sector, don’t make up for lower pay in comparable positions or positions requiring comparable qualifications/education. On balance, there is a penalty for working in the public sector.

Governor Branstad doesn’t talk about the wages/salary side. He is ignoring the fact that, unlike his pay and that of state legislators, state employees’ benefits in place are a result of bargaining — a point acknowledged far too little, but thankfully was cited this week by the Muscatine Journal’s Steve Jameson. State employees agreed on the pay levels they receive in the context of other benefitsthey al so receive.

Oddly, when the Governor says state workers should pay $1,000 toward their health insurance, he is peddling it all as savings to the state. Actually, we should expect salaries to go up to compensate for lost benefits.

Also, why are state employees the Governor’s target? Revenues are up, and the Governor is happily giving away millions to companies that don’t pay income tax, and leaving corporate tax loopholes open as well. So explain again, please: Why should state workers take a $1,000 pay cut?

Who would take that deal?

By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Look at more than public employees’ health benefits

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Andrew Cannon

It will not be surprising, in the post-Wisconsin-recall world, if policymakers feel emboldened to challenge public employee compensation. Governor Branstad has already signaled that some of his policy initiatives in the coming years will bear the stamp of Wisconsin. In a June 12, 2012, meeting with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, the Governor said he intends to require public employees to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance.

If that sounds reasonable — considering that private-sector workers contribute, on average, more than 20 percent of their health insurance premiums — it misses the realities of overall public employee compensation.

While it is true that public employees contribute less on average to their health insurance plans than private-sector workers, they have negotiated the benefit as part of overall compensation packages that, all political hyperbole and “conventional wisdom” aside, typically leave public employees behind their private-sector counterparts. As IPP research has demonstrated, public workers tend to be paid considerably less than similarly educated workers in the private sector. Generally better health insurance benefits do not compensate for the deficiency, so a gap remains.

After controlling for experience, education, and other demographic factors, public-sector employees still receive 6 percent to 8 percent lower overall compensation — that is, pay, health, dental, life and disability insurance, and retirement benefits — than private workers.

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Requiring an employee contribution of 20 percent of health insurance premiums is a disguised cut in compensation and amounts to a repudiation of contracts that have been negotiated in good faith between public employees and the state. Furthermore, it would widen the gap between public and private sector pay.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Unreasonable fear about ‘one-time’ money

Using stimulus funds bridged a gap in revenues and kept Iowa out of a race to the bottom.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

You hear about it whenever some Iowa politicians get near a microphone to talk about the budget.

Heard above much wailing and gnashing of teeth is a common complaint that Iowa used “one-time money” to deal with recession-driven budget challenges.

Well, thank goodness for (1) that one-time money and (2) the willingness of state leaders at the time, including then-Governor Chet Culver, to spend it.

The Des Moines Register gets it, and isn’t afraid to say so in today’s editorial:

Yes, Iowa did it by shifting money set aside in savings accounts for other purposes, and it used one-time federal stimulus money. That was the right thing to do. The alternative would have been to lay off police officers, teachers and state workers, making the recession even worse in Iowa.

The state is in better shape financially now. It has the money to pay for essential services it has committed to provide to Iowans. The Legislature and the governor should pay to carry out those commitments.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) has pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, (ARRA), the economic stimulus program passed in 2009, was designed to provide targeted, timely and temporary assistance to Americans in the recession. As IPP’s Andrew Cannon noted in a recent IFP report, “Catching Up: Context for 2012 Budget Decisions in Iowa”:

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

While there is certainly merit in reducing the use of one-time money for the continuing expenses of the state, one-time-fund critics sometimes let strict adherence to that concept get the best of them. For instance, Recovery Act dollars were used precisely as intended: targeted, timely and temporary relief so that states could continue funding critical services, such as K-12 education and health services to individuals and families. State revenues declined precipitously during the worst of the recession; the Recovery Act bridged that drop-off in revenues until a time when revenues improved as the economy regained strength. The same can be said for use of $38.7 million from one of the rainy-day funds since high unemployment and reduced revenues during the year must constitute the rainy revenue day that the fund was designed to cover.

Had the Legislature and Governor Culver chosen not to use the ARRA funds, it is reasonable to assume that the holes created in recession would be left unfilled in better times. This is because one of the priority pieces of legislation passed in 2011 was the creation of a “Taxpayers Trust Fund” to pay for new tax breaks, the fund to be built from revenues coming in at a faster pace than expected. The priority was not to sustain or restore services, let alone enhance them, but to restrain use of new revenues.

Using the ARRA money when it came, for its intended purpose to bridge a revenue gap caused by recession, kept critical services in place when they were most needed, and kept us off the pace of a race to the bottom. Thank you to The Des Moines Register for reminding its readers of that smart public policy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director