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

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


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.

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


Fix both ‘cliff effect’ and low minimum wage

Past failures to improve both the minimum wage and child care eligibility should not end up as an excuse to fix neither.

As the debate over a Polk County minimum wage continues, the so-called “cliff effect” is being cited as a reason to limit the increase in the wage. This is unfortunate. Capping the wage at a low level would hurt thousands of families, including many with burdensome child care costs.

cliffs3The “cliff effect” results from the design of Iowa’s Child Care Assistance program (CCA), which pays a portion of the cost of care for low-income families. Iowa has one of the lowest eligibility ceilings in the country: 145 percent of poverty. When a family’s income hits that level ($29,120 for a single mother with two children), benefits disappear.

While most work support programs, such as food assistance, taper off gradually, with CCA you just fall off a financial cliff — the “cliff effect.”

We do need to fix that program. But the failure of state lawmakers and the governor to address the CCA cliff effect is not a good reason to forgo needed wage increases for thousands of working families. An estimated 60,000 workers would benefit from an increase to $12 an hour in Polk County; 88,000 by an increase to $15 (phased in over several years).

Of those who would benefit from a higher minimum, 36 to 38 percent are in families with children. To put the CCA cliff in context, recognize:

•     Thousands have high child care costs and incomes below 145 percent of poverty but do not receive CCA. A 2007 study estimated that only about 1 in 3 Iowa families eligible for CCA were actually receiving it. The two-thirds with low wages but without assistance still need higher wages.

•     Second, a low wage cap would not help many families barely above 145 percent of poverty, but still facing child care costs of $4,000 to $5,000 a year per child. These families, in many cases married couples with one or both working at a low wage, can’t make ends meet.

•     Third, the other 62 to 64 percent of low-wage workers do not have children, and many families whose children are older do not need child care. A cap on the minimum wage hurts all of them.

Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the cliff is not as sudden as it appears. Because Iowa moved to one-year eligibility, a family whose income rises enough to push them above 145 percent of poverty can continue to receive assistance for another year. In that time, they may find ways to adjust, such as quitting the second or third job or reducing hours or overtime, to stay eligible for CCA but have more time with their children. This is surely a benefit from a higher minimum wage.

Policies that move families toward self-sufficiency are widely supported. We want workers to increase their earnings by furthering their education, finding higher paying jobs, gaining experience that earns them promotions — and have time to care for their families.

Yes, we should fix our child care assistance program, which can penalize all of those efforts. But we should also fix a minimum wage stuck at a level well below what even a single person needs to get by. Past failures to fix one problem should not end up as an excuse to fix neither.

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



“Reducing Cliff Effects in Child Care Assistance,” Peter Fisher and Lily French, Iowa Policy Project, March 2014, PDF

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

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.