Is it time for Woodbury County to join the party?

This week, two more counties in Iowa — Linn and Wapello — joined Johnson County in setting a countywide minimum wage. In Linn County, the wage will rise to $10.25 by January 2019, while Wapello County followed Johnson County’s lead in raising the wage to $10.10 in three installments. Polk County is expected to take up a proposal soon to raise the wage there to $10.75 by 2019. Lee County supervisors, meanwhile, have appointed a study group to consider a minimum wage.

Unlike these counties, Woodbury is part of a three-state metropolitan area that includes counties in Nebraska and South Dakota where the state minimum wage has already been raised above the federal. The minimum wage is currently $8.55 in South Dakota and $9.00 in Nebraska. Sioux City employers are already competing in a labor market with wages above the Iowa minimum of $7.25.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, economists at the Economic Policy Institute estimate that about 10,000 workers in Woodbury County would see an increase in their hourly wage if the county set a minimum equal to Nebraska’s $9.00 by January 2018. Those 10,000 workers on average would see their annual income rise by about $1,500.

If the Woodbury County wage were raised further, to $10.25 by January 2019, putting it on a par with Linn County, the number of workers benefiting would grow to about 12,600. The average gain in income would about double, to $3,000.[i]

The Census data dispel the usual myths about low-wage workers. In Woodbury County, over 80 percent of those benefiting from the $9.00 or $10.10 minimum would be age 20 or over, with about a third over age 40. Well over half of them work full time. About 26 percent are parents, and 3,400 to 4,700 children live in a family that would see a rise in income.

Raising the minimum wage puts more disposable income in the pockets of the work force. Much of that income would be returned to the local economy as workers spend more at grocery stores, car dealerships, clothing stores, restaurants, theaters — in fact, throughout the local retail and service sectors. Increased sales in turn would create a need for more workers.

It is this increase in local spending that is a major reason that studies of local minimum wage laws have found no effect on employment. The higher labor costs to employers are offset in part by increased demand for their goods and services, and in part by lower employee turnover and greater productivity.

The Iowa Policy Project’s 2016 Cost of Living in Iowa shows what it takes for families to get by, just covering basic expenses for food, rent, transportation, child care and health care. In Woodbury County, a married couple who both work and who have two children needing child care would each need to earn at least $13.00 an hour to get by, even with health insurance provided by an employer. Without health insurance, they would need to make over $16 an hour. Even a single person living alone would need a wage of $12.46 to get by without public assistance, or nearly $11.00 an hour in a job with health benefits.

While $9.00 or $10.10 does not represent a living wage in Woodbury County, it gets workers closer to that goal and helps thousands of families, many struggling below the poverty line. And it provides a significant boost to the local economy through increased spending.


[i] These estimates include those affected directly and indirectly. About three-fourths of the workers gaining a higher wage represent those earning less than the new minimum. But the other fourth represent those a little higher up the wage scale who would benefit as employers adjust pay levels to remain competitive or to restore parity within a business.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Iowa JobWatch: Jobs Rise in August, Still Sluggish

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa nonfarm jobs increased in August to 1,553,500, but the unemployment rate remained at 4.5 percent, down from 4.7 percent a year ago. The Iowa Policy Project today released the following statement by research associate Heather Gibney about the latest numbers:

“The month of August saw a very small increase in total nonfarm jobs, which is right in line with the fact that Iowa’s major job sectors lost about the same amount of jobs that were gained. Professional and business services and leisure and hospitality saw the largest gains while construction experienced the biggest loss.”

“It’s also important to look at long-term trends rather than one-month changes. Iowa is now above pre-recession job levels — but those jobs serve a 4.9 percent larger population, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The net job gain since the December 2007 start of the recession is only 28,600 — but 75,400 jobs were needed by now to keep up with population growth. Therefore, the state shows a job deficit of 46,800 jobs.”

Job Growth Perspective

Governor Branstad set a goal of 200,000 new jobs over five years. Iowa’s economy has produced 77,300 net new jobs through the first 43 months of his term. To add the remaining 122,700 jobs, Iowa would need to add 7,200 new jobs per month over the next 18 months, compared to a pace of 1,800 for the first 43 months.

Key Numbers

  • Nonfarm jobs held steady in August at 1,553,500. Nonfarm jobs are 18,000 ahead of where they stood a year earlier.
  • Nonfarm jobs are 25,500 ahead of the May 2008 peak of 1,528,000, and 28,600 ahead of the level at the start of the last recession in December 2007.
  • The unemployment rate remained at 4.5 percent in August but was down from 4.7 percent a year earlier.
  • The labor force — those working or looking for work — rose by 2,400 from July to 1,703,000 and was up 29,800 over 12 months.
  • Initial unemployment claims were 11,445 in August, down 11.2 percent from July and 4.6 percent from a year earlier. The number of continuing claims — 23,053 — was down 6.6 percent for the month and down 7.5 percent for the year.
  • Five sectors posted gains in August led by professional and businesses services and leisure and hospitality (1,200), trade and transportation (500), financial activities (300) and mining (100).
  • These increases were offset by losses of 1,100 in construction, a loss of 600 in education and health and government jobs, a loss of 500 in manufacturing, 200 in other services, and 100 for information jobs.

Key Trends

  • All job sectors except information and manufacturing have shown net gains over the last 12 months. Construction jobs are up 3.2 percent over the year, with changes in other major categories up by less than 2.4 percent over 12 months.
  • 300 jobs were added during the month of August.
  • Iowa averaged a monthly increase of about 1,500 jobs over the last 12 months.
  • For a full year, Iowa has remained above the previous job peak of 1,528,000, reached in May 2008, just before jobs began to plummet during the last recession.


Who benefits? No doubts — the ‘1 Percent’

So the banks were saying, in effect: Yes, we see that you are making your payments at 6 percent but we don’t think you could make the lower payments at 3.5 percent.

Peter Fisher
Peter Fisher

For whose benefit is this country run? The events of the past 10 years should have erased any doubts about the answer to that question. Let’s recap for a minute just what happened.

First, federal regulators sat idly by while banks and investment funds, with help from their friends the bond rating agencies, put billions into high-risk mortgages that should never have been made, and mortgage brokers raked in closing fees. Millions of families became heavily in debt, and housing prices shot up at unsustainable rates. When all this collapsed, it drove the economy into the deepest recession since the 1930s. Millions lost their jobs and their homes, as banks chose to foreclose rather than work out a way for homeowners to remain in their homes.

There was a little seeming good news: Interest rates were at an all-time low. People could refinance at incredibly low rates. But wait: The banks reacted to the criticisms of their previous loose lending practices by drastically tightening credit rules. Ordinary people who were making house payments with mortgages at 5 or 6 or 7 percent were denied refinancing because their credit was bad — because of the recession and loss of jobs. So the banks were saying, in effect: Yes, we see that you are making your payments at 6 percent but we don’t think you could make the lower payments at 3.5 percent. Banks kept their very profitable mortgages, earning twice what they could get on new mortgages, and prolonging the recession as consumers were unable to free up money for other purchases.

So finally, after five years of economic hardship for much of the population, housing prices have hit bottom and started back up again. Great news. People who have a job again may also be able to buy a house again, and at still very favorable prices and interest rates. But wait: We can’t have the formerly unemployed, forced out of their homes, becoming homeowners again and getting all the benefit from future rising prices and cheap credit. No, that’s clearly a job for the rich.

Families who struggled and suffered during the recession saw their credit ratings sink, and with the tight credit rules, they are shut out of the mortgage market (and in some cases the job market as well). And who steps in? Wall Street firms and wealthy house-flippers. One firm alone, the Blackstone Group, has purchased 26,000 homes in nine states.[i] In a few years they can re-sell to ordinary working folks at higher prices (with mortgages at higher interest rates). The rich, it turns out, are the ones in a position to buy at the bottom and reap the capital gains that will follow (taxed, of course, at a much lower rate than wages).

It should hardly come as a surprise that the net effect of the housing bubble, the financial collapse and prolonged recession, and the beginnings of recovery, was to bring about a substantial redistribution of wealth. For much of the population, what little wealth they had was concentrated in home equity, which was wiped out by the collapse of the housing market; wealth continued to decline for the bottom 93 percent of the population during the first two years of “recovery.”[ii] But for the richest 7 percent, wealth increased 28 percent, from 2009 to 2011.

Income inequality is rising again as well, as profits have surged since the recovery began while wages have stagnated. The top 1 percent got 121 percent of all the gains in income from 2009 to 2011.[iii] If you are in the 1 percent, things have worked out just swimmingly; causing an economic collapse can be very profitable if you are in the right position.

If you are part of the 1 percent, you are also free to spend as much of that new wealth as you want re-electing public officials who will blame Food Stamp recipients, unions, and public school teachers for our economic troubles, while slashing any program that benefits the poorer half of the population in the name of cutting the national debt. Those elected officials can also be counted on to weaken those pesky new financial regulations, modest to start with, and making sure your tax rate doesn’t go back up to anywhere near what it was in the 1990s. Of course, curbing spending while unemployment is still above 7 percent prolongs the jobs recession and the hardships of working families, but who cares? Keep those wages down, profits up, and stock prices hitting historic highs. Meanwhile, having helped destroy several millions jobs during the recession, and having found numerous ways to restore production levels since then without hiring back your former employees, you will now find that you can claim an exemption from tax increases and qualify for all kinds of state and local incentives on the grounds that you are a “job creator.”

Is this a great country or what?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

Stagnant objections to minimum wage increases

While passage of an increase is uncertain, Iowans working at the minimum wage will have to get by with creativity, possibly working two jobs and needing work supports.

Heather Gibney, Research Associate
Heather Gibney

Dialogue about increasing the minimum wage is finally emerging in 2013. President Obama proposed an increase in the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour in his State of the Union address, and Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller have introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 — which would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. The Harkin-Miller bill would raise the wage in three steps of 95 cents before indexing it to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Iowa’s minimum wage now matches the federal. Raising it to $10.10 per hour would put nearly $6,000 more dollars in the pockets of Iowa families, and for the first time since the late 1970s a single parent with two children would be above the federal poverty level — a wage gap that we should have seen diminishing over time, but have not.

poverty vs min wage

Recognizing that the federal minimum wage is too low, 19 other states, including the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage than the federal and 10 states annually increase their minimum to keep up with the rising cost of living. Unfortunately, attempts to raise the federal minimum wage and set automatic adjustments to keep pace with the rising cost of living have been hindered by bad economics. Beliefs that increasing the minimum wage will lead to job loss, that the majority of those benefiting would be teenagers and that it would decrease output for certain industries is the consensus among opponents, however unfounded. A recent report from the Center on Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) looked at the most influential research done on the minimum wage in the last 20 years and continuously found insignificant or no discernible effects feared — and promoted — by opponents of raises in the minimum wage.

While the passage of any of these proposals remains uncertain, Iowans working for the minimum wage will have to get by with their creativity; possibly working two jobs, relying on cash assistance and tax credits, going without those amenities that make life a little more enjoyable and hoping that one day they might join the middle class.

Posted by Heather Gibney, Research Associate

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Budget balance can mix responsible tax reform with smart investments. A $750 tax credit for all is neither.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

States should beware ALEC-brand snake oil

ALEC’s rankings are based on arguments and evidence that range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research.

Peter Fisher

Legislative sessions will be starting across the country after the first of the year, and with them, some very bad ideas for public policy.

The purveyor of many poor prescriptions is a very influential right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. The organization promotes policies to cut taxes and regulations in the disguise of promoting economic growth, but what they really do is reduce services, opportunity and accountability.

In short, the ALEC medicine show is a prescription for poor results, and states should beware.

Our new report, “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” examines ALEC’s proposals and the misinformed, primitive methodology behind the study that supports them. The new report, a joint project of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and Good Jobs First in Washington, D.C., illustrates how ALEC’s prescriptions really offer stagnation and wage suppression.

In fact, we find that since ALEC first published its annual “Rich States, Poor States” study with its Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, states that were rated better have actually done worse economically.

Find “Selling Snake Oil to the States” at

We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.

ALEC’s rankings are based on arguments and evidence that range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research.

What we know from research is that the composition of a state’s economy — whether it has disproportionate shares of high-growth or low-growth industries — is a far better predictor of a state’s relative success over the past five years. Public policy makers need to stick to the basics and recognize that public services that benefit all employers.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

House vote: Thumbs up or thumbs down for 86,000 Iowa families?

Simply put, the House bill would undo the good work of 2009; the Senate bill would keep it, on behalf of working families and the economy.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Iowans would stand to lose much under a proposal this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Citizens for Tax Justice offered a striking analysis last week highlighting the impact of the 2009 improvements in the refundable tax credits for low-income working families in Iowa.

Simply put, the House proposal would undo the good work of 2009 and increase tax inequities, while a Senate-passed bill would keep the good stuff.

One of the 2009 improvements is an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue we have covered extensively at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Any attempts to weaken the EITC at either the state or federal level will harm low- to moderate-income working families in our state. More than 1 out of every 7 federal tax filers in Iowa claims the EITC (about 15 percent). But under H.R. 8, the tax proposal being offered by the House leadership, the EITC improvements from 2009 would be lost.

H.R. 8 also would fail to extend the improvements made in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2009, and in the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education expenses.

It is impossible to find balance in the approach of H.R. 8, which would end these provisions above for 13 million working families with 26 million children, while extending tax cuts for 2.7 million high-income earners.

The state numbers from CTJ (full report available here):

  • 86,321 Iowa families with 190,553 kids would lose $62.5 million ($724 per family), if 2009 rules on EITC and the Per-Child Tax Credit are not extended;
  • 17,503 Iowa families with 28,179 kids would lose $32 million if the Per-Child Tax Credit earnings threshold does not remain at $3,000, compared to $13,300 as proposed by H.R. 8.
  • 59,159 Iowa families with 139,806 kids would lose $30.5 million if the two 2009 expansions of the EITC — larger credit for families with three or more children, and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty” — are not extended in 2013.

These “Making Work Pay” provisions of the tax code are almost exclusively of help to working families earning $50,000 or less at a time of stagnant wages and a difficult job market in which the Iowa economy is shifting toward lower-wage jobs.

To address our nation’s serious deficit and debt issues, a balanced approach should do nothing to increase poverty or income inequality. The Senate bill passed last week would keep the EITC and CTC improvements from 2009, and follows that principle. The bill that has emerged in the House does not.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director