Enriching the minimum wage discussion

History shows the minimum wage was meant to be a meaningful policy tool to help working families, not limited to “entry level” work or teens. In fact, efforts to establish the wage came as policy makers were trying to remove young teenagers from the workforce.

The spin against any minimum wage increase — or even having a minimum wage — has become predictable. This should surprise no one. Policy makers since President Franklin D. Roosevelt have battled the same stuff.

A little relevant history might be just what is needed as Iowans consider the arguments for a national, state or even local increase, which passed in Johnson County.

History shows the minimum wage was meant to be a meaningful policy tool to help working families, not limited to “entry level” work or teen wages. In fact, efforts to establish the wage came at the same time policy makers were trying to remove young teenagers from the workforce.

The U.S. Department of Labor website has an interesting paper published almost 40 years ago by a DOL historian, Jonathan Grossman: Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage In it, Grossman relates a story about a young girl’s note to Roosevelt, telling of pay being cut from $11 a week to between $4 and $6 a week. 

To a reporter’s question, the President replied, “Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.”

“Starvation wages” are your concern if you expect the wage to be meaningful to a household budget.

Interestingly, Iowa Policy Project research shows what is needed for a household budget. In Linn County, where a very low $8.25 has been suggested by a split task force, a single parent needs to make between $21 and $25 an hour to support a household on a bare-bones, basic-needs budget without public supports. In Polk County, it takes between $22 and $27 for a parent in similar circumstances.

IPP and Economic Policy Institute analysis also show this issue is scarcely about teens. Statewide, more than 4 out of 5 workers affected by an increase to $12 are 20 years old or older. A quarter of them have children. Over half of them work full time. On average, they account for over half of their family’s total income.

County supervisors in Johnson County have taken the baton across generations from FDR, to assure families have a chance. They acted last year to raise the local wage in three steps to $10.10 by next January 1, and they have already taken two steps, to $9.15.

Discussions are moving ahead in Polk County, Linn County and Lee County. Passing a local wage is a significant signal to state leaders that they are through waiting for action. Any county must consider whether the content of its action is significant as well — however bold it may seem to pass local law on this issue, the amount does matter.

And for those who say, “Let the market handle it,” just wake up. Clearly, it does not. As FDR stated in 1937:

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the exponents of the theory of private initiative as the cure for deep-seated national ills want in most cases to improve the lot of mankind. But, well intentioned as they may be, they fail…. (T)hey have no power to bind the inevitable minority of chiselers within their own ranks.

Though we may go far in admitting the innate decency of this small minority, the whole story of our Nation proves that social progress has too often been fought by them. In actual practice it has been effectively advanced only by the passage of laws by state legislatures or the National Congress. [1]

Do we value history? Do we value work? Do we value families? Do we value practical solutions through public policy? We are about to see.

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Message to Congress on Establishing Minimum Wages and Maximum Hours.,” May 24, 1937. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15405.

owen-2013-57By Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project.

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Minimum wage: When leaders won’t wait

When state lawmakers won’t act, local officials may well take matters into their own hands.

The Iowa Legislature adjourned the 2016 session 10 days past its target, but the timing could not have been much better.

Two days after adjournment — with no action on the state’s long-outdated $7.25 minimum wage — the second step of Johnson County’s local minimum-wage increase took effect Sunday.

The minimum wage in Johnson County moved from $8.20 to $9.15, with the final step to $10.10 scheduled for Jan. 1, 2017.

Johnson County supervisors acted last year because the state Legislature and U.S. Congress had not. Other counties in Iowa may see a need to follow suit if the state cannot move off the $7.25 level established on Jan. 1, 2008.

Working Iowans are trying to support families on minimum wage or slightly above because employers can get away with paying that below-poverty amount. Someone has to look out for low-wage workers when their employers refuse to do so.

Those employers benefit immensely from taxpayer support of education, law enforcement, roads and other public structures, not to mention direct subsidies or tax breaks.

The minimum wage is one way to establish accountability — and not just for business but for our political leadership as well. When state lawmakers won’t act, local officials may well take matters into their own hands.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the nonpartisan 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.

 

 

Uncertain wage, certain messages

“If you work here I’m afraid you’re going to have to get along with less.”

 

Last fall the Johnson County supervisors gave the county’s low-wage workers a raise, and come May 1 they will get another one. The county raised the minimum wage from $7.25, where it has stagnated for eight years due to national and state inaction, to $8.20 November 1 in the first of three steps. The county minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $9.15 on May 1 and to $10.10 in January 2017.

It is worth recalling why this landmark legislation was needed.  While American workers are far more productive than they were 40 or 50 years ago, their pay has not risen accordingly. After accounting for inflation, the average wage earner is not much better off now than in the 1960s or 1970s.

Even at $10.10, the minimum wage will not be enough to support even a single person, or two adults with no children both working full time, at a basic, bare-bones standard of living in Johnson County. For families with children, that wage is even further from a self-supporting one. Yet, contrary to some perceptions that minimum wage workers are just teen-agers working part time, over 40 percent of the workers in Johnson County currently making less than $10.10 work full time, almost 80 percent are over age 20, and over one in five are parents.

Some have tried to argue that localities shouldn’t set minimum wages because it is a statewide issue, while others seem to think it is just an Iowa City problem (and some, paradoxically, argue both points). Let’s be clear: Johnson County is all one labor market. People who live in Iowa City or Coralville or North Liberty or Solon work in all those places as well; city boundaries have little to do with commuting patterns. At the same time, only about 6 percent of low-wage workers in Johnson County commute from outside the county.

So having a single minimum wage throughout the Johnson County labor market makes good sense. Certainly it would be best if the state Legislature acted on a statewide minimum wage increase, but its failure to do so should not be an excuse for localities in Johnson County to drop below the county minimum. And it certainly makes no sense to complain that a county minimum creates a patchwork across the state, which is not a single labor market, and then to create an actual patchwork within the county by local ordinance.

Raising the wages of low wage workers to something closer to a self-sustaining wage is good for the local economy. Higher wages boost spending power, driving up sales at local retail and service businesses. Businesses find that higher wages can be offset through increased productivity, lower turnover, and slight increases in prices. Study after study has shown that local minimum wage ordinances have no discernible net effect on employment.

Johnson County residents should be proud to join the 28 other cities and counties across the country that have taken action to boost the wages of low-wage workers. Consider the message of localities choosing to deprive their workers of a long-overdue raise.

Does North Liberty or Tiffin really want to say to residents: “If you work in Iowa City or Coralville, we’re glad you’re going to get a raise, but if you work here I’m afraid you’re going to have to get along with less; oh, and please don’t take it out on our local businesses by shopping elsewhere.”

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter Fisher, research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Time is right for minimum wage increase

The Speaker has the opportunity to put a popular issue on her agenda during an election year.

It’s now been eight years since Iowa’s minimum wage has changed, and Governor Branstad stated in a newspaper interview that he would consider signing an increase if it were to reach his desk.

Getting there is a big “if” as the House has not permitted the issue to come to the floor. New House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, in the same Cedar Rapids Gazette news story in which the Governor left open the door to an increase, had this to say:

“I believe we really need to focus on how to get people into jobs with livable wages. I don’t think anybody has as their goal in life to have a job that pays minimum wage. People want to have a job that pays a livable wage.”

The Speaker’s comment merely deflects attention from a popular idea: raising the wage. The issue of course is not about making the minimum wage a “goal in life,” but facing up to the reality that it is low. It is holding down hundreds of thousands of Iowans in their quest to reach what are their life goals.

Furthermore, an interest in “livable wages” does not preclude action on a minimum wage. Nothing is stopping lawmakers from passing a “livable” minimum wage, or by boosting the minimum as part of a larger strategy to encourage better wages across the board in Iowa.

This is not some small slice of our population who could gain. Statewide, a minimum wage increase would give a raise to hundreds of thousands of Iowa workers. An increase from $7.25 to $10.10, for example, would help 306,000 Iowa workers; and a raise to $12, 436,000. Raise it to $15, closer to an actual cost of living, and it would help far more.

A new report by IPP’s Peter Fisher notes that in Linn County alone, a wage at $10.10 by 2017 would raise wages for 18,400 workers directly — over half of them full-time workers and a third of them supporting families.

Basic RGB

Speaker Upmeyer reportedly noted concerns about a “big patchwork” of minimum wages across the state in the wake or Johnson County stepping forward with a wage to be phased in to $10.10 by this time next year. She can fix that. The Speaker has the opportunity to put a popular issue on her agenda during an election year.

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

Don’t take talkers’ comments at face value

What actually occurred is that restaurant and bar jobs grew in the Seattle metro area after the wage was raised.

The shameless way the public debate can be distorted never ends. Case in point: discussion about the minimum wage.

If you were in Eastern Iowa this morning listening to Simon Conway’s program on WMT-AM radio, you would not have an accurate idea of what happened in Seattle, Washington, following that city’s first step — to $11 — toward an eventual minimum wage of $15. Confusion on this issue has occurred in Johnson County, where supervisors have approved a $10.10 minimum wage by 2017.

2010-PF-sq
Peter Fisher
IPP Research Director

What actually occurred, as Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project has pointed out, is that job numbers rose in Seattle after the wage was raised. See his Aug. 25 guest opinion in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Excerpt:

There is also misinformation flying around about Seattle, which took the first step toward raising the minimum wage to $15 in April of this year. What actually occurred is that overall employment in Seattle grew after the wage was raised. … The idea that restaurants closed because of the wage hike turned out to be a myth — the owners of the four restaurants in question reported that wages had nothing to do with their decisions.

New job numbers since then show jobs to be up in Seattle — both overall and in the restaurant and drinking places category — and both over the year and since the first step of the minimum wage increase. While it would be a mistake to suggest the minimum wage is responsible, the leisure and hospitality category alone shows a net gain of 1,100 jobs since the higher minimum went into effect.*

Much number-crunching is yet to be done to enhance understanding about how the Seattle increase is now affecting and ultimately will affect the labor market in that area. But the fact that the scare tactics have had little substance behind them has been pretty clear from early on. See this Seattle Times story. Or this Forbes.com story.

The lesson here is not that the minimum wage increase caused an increase in jobs in Seattle — but that it’s ridiculous to say it hindered jobs.

That is, of course, if you are at all interested in the facts.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project
Learn more about Iowa issues with the minimum wage on our website, www.iowapolicyproject.org
* seasonally adjusted jobs, Washington State Employment Security Department.

Careful with the comments, Council Members

Whichever way Solon council members vote on a local minimum wage, they should make the decision with good information, not discredited myths.

As the Solon City Council decides whether to back out of a Johnson County minimum wage increase, good information is available for comparison to recent comments by council members.

Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project took a look recently at what a larger increase — to $15 — would do in Johnson and Linn counties. That report is here.

Separately, we have an Iowa Policy Project fact sheet available here on how Iowans statewide would be affected by an increase to $10.10, which is the level recently established by Johnson County supervisors to be phased in by 2017.

Findings of that research contradicts many comments by council members in Solon. For example, the minimum wage clearly is not, as one suggests, “for kids to go out and have some pocket money, that sort of stuff.”

In fact, the wage has been held so low for so long that it has become is part of a larger low-wage climate in our state, so that parents account for 1 in 5 of those who would be helped by a $10.10 minimum statewide. And almost half — 46 percent — of total family income in homes with a worker making less than $10.10 an hour comes from that job.

One council member ignores a lot of people in Iowa, very likely many of his own neighbors, when he suggests this is all about part-time work. More than 4 in 10 — 43 percent — of the workers who would benefit from an increase to $10.10 in Iowa are working full time.

Finally, an observation by a third council member is particularly noteworthy — that local restaurants are having trouble finding help. Wonder why that would be? Something about low pay, perhaps? How many more would be willing to work if pay were increased? How many more would be patronizing local businesses because they could afford to do so?

It is certainly up to the good people of Solon and their leaders to decide whether to go along with the new Johnson County ordinance, and by doing so to put pressure on the state to raise the state minimum. The latter, by the way, is what some council members are quoted that what they want to see: a statewide increase. Yet with no local pressure, is that really the message they send to state lawmakers who are holding Iowa’s minimum below that of 29 other states?

Whichever way they decide, however, they should be making the decision with good information, not discredited myths.

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