What the working poor need


Barb Arland-Fye

Two new studies on the working poor in Iowa call attention to a problem that threatens the common good and human flourishing. The reports differ in methodology, but the bottom line is that too many families with at least one full-time worker don’t earn enough to make ends meet. They are the people we depend on: cashiers, day care providers, nurse’s aides, food service workers and secretaries, among others.
Nearly 114,000 Iowa families with one or more full-time wage earner – one in five Iowa families — do not earn enough to provide for a basic standard of living without public supports, Iowa Policy Project (IPP) reported last week. IPP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, produces research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. The July 6 report is the second of a three-part series on the cost of living.
A week earlier, United Ways of Iowa reported that 381,266 Iowa households (31 percent) struggled to afford basic household necessities in 2014. The “ALICE” (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report is a joint project of the state’s United Ways to raise awareness about the plight of the working poor and maximize their opportunities for financial stability. Both studies provide insights and the impetus for moving forward.
Each study identifies families’ basic necessities — housing, food, child care, health care and transportation — and how low wages compound the challenges in meeting these needs. Think about it this way: if your older-model car that you depend on to get to work breaks down and you can’t afford the $400 to fix it, you could end up losing your job.
Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, eight years running. A polarized Iowa Legislature has been unable to reach agreement on this issue. Opponents say raising the minimum wage will threaten businesses and result in layoffs. Supporters see an increase to $10.10 per hour as a way to help lift families out of poverty and reduce dependence on government assistance.
But even an increase to $10.10 an hour isn’t enough, when the studies show that some families would need to nearly double their income to ensure that basic needs are met (roughly $46,000 for a family of four). These families must depend on a variety of work support programs to achieve a basic standard of living, Iowa Policy Project says.
What will it take for us to convince the Iowa Legislature to address the needs of the working poor? For starters, let’s ask our legislators to revamp child care assistance. While this assistance is available to Iowa parents with very low wages, Iowa has one of the lowest income eligibility ceilings in the U.S. (IPP, March 2014). It’s almost as if families are penalized financially for trying to better themselves at work!
Geographical challenges add to the complexity. Health care and transportation costs, for example, are considerably higher in rural areas than in metro areas. What is our role, as citizens of this state and as people who profess to follow Christ, in addressing these challenges?
Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel” that governmental and financial leaders must work to ensure “that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?” (No. 205)
Yes, let’s turn to God, and also lobby our leaders of government and finance for change. Our church leaders call us to be faithful citizens in the public square, to address the common good. What values have we embraced based on Catholic social teaching, on the Gospel, on the author of the common good?
Finally, please sign up to attend the “Mercy in Motion” daylong conference that the Davenport Diocese is hosting July 30 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport (www.davenportdiocese.org). One of the workshop presenters is Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, who will address the issues raised in this editorial.
When we support resources to help families succeed, we provide a climate for their children to succeed.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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