Positive options for the 2020s

The failures of the 2010s spotlight how we can use public policy to make Iowa more equitable, inclusive and sustainable in the 2020s.

iowacapitol-rotundaWe would be remiss at the end of 2019 not to note the positive lessons of the last 10 years.

We have plenty of room to raise the minimum wage, now 12 years old at $7.25 an hour. Had the minimum simply kept up with inflation, it would be 22 percent higher, at $8.83 — but of course still short of a living wage. IPP research shows a single parent needs about $20 to $22 an hour working full time just to make a bare-bones household budget.

We can require polluters to stop ruining Iowa’s water, by putting some teeth in the so-called Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is rendered meaningless by requiring nothing of polluters. Even the good actors in the ag community should be able to see their efforts are eroded like unprotected soil when neighbors’ farm practices contribute to nutrient pollution.

Without raising tax rates, we can raise significant revenue for education and other shortchanged services, by curtailing or ending research tax-credit checks for corporations that pay no income tax ($40 million), and by closing tax loopholes ($100 million). Instead, we have seen an average increase of less than 2 percent in permitted per-pupil K-12 spending in Iowa over 10 years. We see rising college tuition because of poor state support.

We can make our tax system more fair by shifting our increased reliance on sales taxes to revenue sources such as income tax. Our four-decade trend toward sales tax (and against income tax) may continue in 2020 with the push for environmental quality and recreation as directed by voters in 2010, but it can be paired with moves to make the overall system more fair. Note: That approach demands no new tax cuts for the wealthy.

That list is hardly exhaustive. Queue up child care assistance, wage theft enforcement, restoring and protecting collective bargaining rights, making pensions more commonplace instead of attacking workers who have them. We could even step up efforts to protect vulnerable communities in advance of the next flooding disaster,

The common theme: Since we’ve done nothing or virtually nothing meaningfully positive in 10 years in these areas, even small steps will look good in comparison. And, because of the pent-up frustration of those who would have been satisfied five years ago with small steps, visionary and dramatic steps might be possible.

But this is not a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” refrain like you would hear after a near-miss in a ballgame. For all their theme of decline, retrenchment and a “can’t-do” mindset, the failures of the 2010s really spotlight what we can do through public policy to work together for a stronger, more equitable, more inclusive, more sustainable Iowa in the 2020s.

This is a moment to start a rebound.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have used solid information and years of perspective to spotlight challenges and ways to make life in Iowa better, next year, five years, even 10 years from now.

So, bring on 2020!

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

The Iowa Policy Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization funded by individual donations, organizations and foundation grants. Tax-deductible contributions may be made online at this link.

Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

A Roadmap for Opportunity: It’s Time to Put Iowa on the Right Path

At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.

181009-roadmap-logoIowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.

Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.

Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:

pinCreating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.

pinBoosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.

pinRestoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.

pinEnsuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.

pinCleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.

Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap, please click here.

SNAP decision could be backward

Clear progress in access to fresh, nutritious foods for children and the disabled in Iowa are at stake in the White House plan for SNAP.

The Trump administration has proposed a 2019 budget with deep cuts and fundamental changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as Food Stamps, SNAP every month assures access to food for more than 350,000 Iowans and pumps more than $38 million into the state economy.[1]

The White House proposal would cut of about $213 billion from SNAP over the next decade. About 40 percent of benefits issued to SNAP recipients would be held back by the USDA. Some cuts would go to fund non-perishable food boxes. Other cuts would just reduce access to food for citizens.[2] The budget also would kick some recipients off the program.

Now adults who are not raising children or are disabled have just three-month of food aid over three years. The change raises the age for those who can get food under that provision to age 62. It was formerly 49. The younger adults would get nothing. Also the White House proposal eliminates the minimum benefit, and caps assistance to any household at six people.

These changes would have unfortunate effects on already high levels of food insecurity in Iowa.

An estimated 10.7 percent of Iowans are considered food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to affordable, nutritious food.[3] SNAP assisted one in eight Iowans in fiscal year 2016. Of those families receiving SNAP benefits, 69 percent have children, and more than 25 percent of benefits go to households with family members who are elderly or disabled. The benefits are not overly generous. In December 2017, Iowa SNAP recipients received just $1.15 per meal.[4]

Food insecurity is correlated with obesity and chronic disease with adults[5] and poses serious threats to child development and school performance.[6] Research has shown that “every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity by adults in families to receive benefits.” [7] SNAP spending contributes to local spending and cuts would hurt small grocers in rural Iowa.

Instead of an opportunity to choose nutritious food in the current debit card system, the administration would offer delivered boxes of foods such as canned meats, cereal and shelf-stable milk. The alleged savings from the change ignores the cost of delivery.

There has been clear progress in getting SNAP to provide access to fresh, nutritious foods for children and the disabled in Iowa. For instance, some Iowa communities have piloted a program called Double Up Food Bucks that doubles the value of food dollars up to $10 to purchase fresh produce at farmers markets in order to incentivize healthy eating.[8] Food boxes are a poor substitute for that kind of initiative.

The White House proposal takes Iowa backward on health and food access.

Posted by Natalie Veldhouse, research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 [1] Iowa Department of Human Services, F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary — January 2018. http://publications.iowa.gov/26363/
 [2] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “President’s Budget Would Cut and Radically Restructure SNAP Food Benefits,” February 2018. https://www.cbpp.org/blog/presidents-budget-would-cut-and-radically-restructure-snap-food-benefits
 [3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2016,” September 2017. Table 4: Prevalence of household-level food insecurity and very low food security, average 2014-2016. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx
 [4] Ibid, Iowa Department of Human Services.
 [5] Food Research & Action Center, “The Impact of Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Poor Nutrition on Health and Well-Being,” December 2017. http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/hunger-health-impact-poverty-food-insecurity-health-well-being.pdf
 [6] Food Research & Action Center, “The Connections Between Food Insecurity, the Federal Nutrition Programs, and Student Behavior,” 2018. http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/breakfast-for-behavior.pdf
 [7] U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier (FANIOM) Model and Stimulus Effects of SNAP. October 2010. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/44748/7996_err103_1_.pdf?v=41056
 [8] Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, “Iowa Healthiest State Initiative Expands Double Up Food Bucks Program in Iowa,” May 2017. http://www.iowahealthieststate.com/blog/press-room/iowa-healthiest-state-initiative-expands-double-up-food-bucks-program-in-iowa/

Welcome silence on tax cuts; too much silence elsewhere

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly.

Against a backdrop of calls for new tax cuts, Governor Branstad in his silence sounded a note of caution.

In fact, the Governor’s apparently final Condition of the State message was notable for several issues that he chose not to address or promote.

Iowans who are vulnerable economically are looking for answers, yet there was no discussion of an increase in the minimum wage, now stagnant for nine years at $7.25, or of protecting local minimums above it.

The Governor offered no guidance for the Legislature and the public for what could happen with health coverage if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act or imposes new restrictions on Medicaid. These issues could quickly become the most pressing in our state as the Governor prepares to leave office for his ambassadorship to China.

At the same time he encouraged Iowans “to ask the tough questions that challenge the status quo” about services and state commissions, he declined to make the same charge regarding Iowa spending on tax breaks — even though General Fund tax credits have more than doubled in just 10 years, with reforms long past due.

At the same time he set a goal for 70 percent of the workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025, he was promoting $34 million in cuts in higher education from the current year budget.

At the same time he promoted a House-passed plan to divert General Fund revenues to fund water-quality efforts, he again rejected a long-term, dedicated and growing source of revenue — a three-eighths-cent sales tax as authorized by voters in 2010 — that would not compete with existing needs.
There will be much for Iowans to review in the budget proposals as they make their way through the legislative process, along with issues including public-sector collective bargaining and other big issues affecting working families in the coming weeks and months.

It is reassuring that the Governor chose not to grab the tax-cut mantle so strongly on his way out the door. But he is missing an opportunity to rein in or even reverse Iowa’s runaway spending on tax credits, which has contributed to unmet needs in our state.

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

County Minimum Wages Spread their Benefits Widely

Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm workers and local economies in many of Iowa’s most populous counties.

It’s not just four counties that benefit from the higher local minimum wages that go into effect this year. Those four counties — Polk, Linn, Johnson and Wapello — account for a third of all private-sector jobs in the state. And a large number of people holding those jobs live in neighboring counties.

Polk, Linn and Johnson counties are the hubs of metropolitan areas, surrounded by counties where a sizeable share of the workforce commutes to the hub. Those commuters earn higher wages thanks to the county supervisors in the three counties. And they come home to spend those higher wages at local gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and other retail shops. They hire local plumbers and builders and electricians. In all, at least 12 counties in addition to Polk, Linn and Johnson will see a substantial increase in resident incomes and local purchases as a result of those three county minimum wages.

The map below shows the percentage of lower wage workers in each suburban county who are employed in the hub county with the higher minimum wage.[1] Clearly, any action by the Iowa Legislature to roll back county minimum wages would harm the workers and the local economies in many of the state’s most populous counties.

Iowa 03-BLUE-counties

[1] Lower wage is defined as earnings of $3,333 per month or less. Restricting it to those earning $1,250 or less results in very similar percentages; the lower figure, however, would represent a wage of even less than the current minimum for someone working full time, whereas the county minimums when fully phased in will benefit all those earning under $10.10 (Johnson) to $10.75 (Polk), and some workers above those levels. These earnings cutoffs were the only ones provided in the Census data.

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

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

A new baseline: Drop in number of uninsured Iowans

The new census numbers set a baseline to evaluate the effects of Iowa’s move this year to privatize Medicaid. After sharp declines in Iowa’s uninsured population, it will be interesting to see if declines continue.

Nineteen out of 20 Iowans are now covered by health insurance, thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act and Iowa’s Medicaid expansion. The latest census data, released today, show that the percent of Iowans who were uninsured dropped from 8.1 percent in 2013 to just 5.0 percent in 2015. While 248,000 Iowans were without insurance in 2013, by 2015 the number had dropped to 155,000.

Only four states have a lower percent of the population without health insurance: Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, plus the District of Columbia.

Across the country, the gap has widened between states that expanded Medicaid and those that did not, as shown below. Twenty-eight states, including Iowa, chose to expand Medicaid eligibility in 2014 or 2015 to families with income up to 138 percent of the poverty level. The uninsured population has declined faster in the last two years in the states that chose to expand.

In Iowa, the 2015 census numbers establish a baseline for evaluating the effects of Iowa’s Medicaid privatization, which took place early this year. It will be interesting to see if the uninsured population continues to decline in 2016.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director

pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

For more on this issue, see:
Census Data Show States Not Expanding Medicaid Falling Further Behind, by Matt Broaddus, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities