The middle, $8 an hour isn’t enough

Our 16-year-old daughter joined the working class a few weeks ago and has completed a crash course in tax withholding and direct deposit. Wages per hour needed no explanation.

She took the job that offered the highest hourly wage, and continues to look within her employer’s job offerings for a higher paying position. She is money-motivated and, for the record, so are her friends.

They aren’t looking for lifelong careers or resume boosts, and few have any inkling of company loyalty.

The Iowa economy, considered one of the more stable, experienced a 44 percent increase in the child poverty rate since 2000. Students eligible for free and reduced school lunches has skyrocketed 56 percent. We’ve more than tripled the percentage of Iowans who receive food assistance.

The economic lesson learned is young people have to look out for themselves. They seek jobs that offer the highest wages instead of jobs or volunteer opportunities that spark passion or might later advance a chosen career.

Despite these being entry-level jobs and their first dip in the employment pool, my daughter and her friends do not earn minimum wage. They make significantly more for each hour — more than the $8 per hour Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett suggested the state use as a standard.

No doubt those who oppose minimum wage hikes or wage standards will view this as justification for their position. They shouldn’t.

(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Iowa employers point to a “skill gap” as the reason they’ve not being able to fill vacancies or expand. This perceived shortage of workers is something lawmakers and other state officials have pledged to address. Yet even as incentives are rolled out to entice new workers or encourage displaced workers to expand their skills, Iowans already in those jobs aren’t regularly working double shifts or enjoying the wage hikes industry provides to those they fear losing.

More likely, employers cannot find workers willing to take positions for the wages they are offering.

My oldest daughter in Montana earns roughly $13 an hour. She works in the same industry and has similar duties to one of my younger daughter’s friends. In Iowa that job pays $8.50 an hour.

Part of the reason for this is Montana’s minimum wage is nearly a dollar above the federal standard. Employers there have learned that if they want workers, they’ll need to pay them a better wage.

The same is true for every state surrounding Iowa except Wisconsin, which is also stuck at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Nebraska and Minnesota pay $9 per hour, while Illinois is at $8.25, South Dakota at $8.55 and Missouri pays $7.65. There is little difference in the cost of living between these places and Iowa.

Given these economic realities, how can I urge my oldest daughter to return? What case can I make for my younger two to stay when their immediate financial well-being would be better elsewhere?

Corbett is correct to urge raising the wage, but rising to the middle isn’t good enough. If businesses want qualified and skilled workers, if residents want to ebb the outflow of young adults, it’s time to shift the state’s policy focus from employers to employees.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 17, 2016. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette