By Paul Street
Lightning strikes above the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Brian Abeling / CC 2.0)
What is the real cost of being poor? The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a cruel joke. If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $19 an hour today. Assuming full-time, year-round employment, the current minimum wage yields $15,131 per year, well below the federal poverty level for a three-person family ($20,160).
That’s why 29 states have increased their minimum wage beyond the federal level, with bottom hourly standards ranging from $7.70 in Missouri to $10 in Arizona, California, Connecticut and Vermont and $11 in Washington and Massachusetts. In the District of Columbia, the figure is $11.50, and will rise to $15 in 2020.
The poverty level is another cruel measure. It is based on an antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times. Like the federal minimum wage level, the poverty level is not adjusted for significant variations in the cost of living across the nation.
What does it cost just to get by today? The family budget calculator of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that the annual expense of adequate, no-frills living for two parents with two children in Iowa City (the most expensive city in the state of Iowa) is $67,710. This sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($851), food ($782), child care ($1,046), transportation ($608), health care ($843), other necessities ($789), and taxes ($724), for a total monthly outlay of $5,643. (As a resident of Iowa City for the past decade, I find these estimates low.) The basic two-parent-two-kid family budget is lower but still daunting in rural Iowa ($60,650) and other Iowa cities such as Davenport ($61,792), Des Moines ($63,741) and Council Bluffs ($66,064).
The cost of a decent living diverges much more widely across the United States. The national cost of just getting by, as measured by the EPI, is $59,852 in Hibbing, Minn. (Bob Dylan’s hometown), $60,246 in rural Arkansas, $69,636 in Minneapolis, $71,995 in Chicago, $85,793 in Boston, $91,785 in San Francisco, $98,722 in New York City and $106,493 in Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, the recent new minimum wage puts the earnings of two full-time, year-round workers at 42 percent of the city’s basic family budget.
Keep the EPI’s figures in mind next time the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the American Enterprise Institute expresses horror at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically” high as $15 an hour. That would mean $30,000 a year for a full-time worker fortunate enough to stay employed year-round. In rural Iowa, two parents working full-time at that supposedly exorbitant wage would still fall short of an adequate standard of living. In Iowa City, those parents would be more than $7,000 short.
HF295: Like Something Out of Dickens
Responding to the stark penury of the federal minimum wage and to differences in the cost of living, elected boards staffed mainly by Democrats in four Iowa counties recently have increased their minimum wages to $10 an hour. Johnson County, home to Iowa City, is already at $10. The three other counties—Polk (home to Des Moines), Linn (Cedar Rapids) and Wapello (Ottumwa)—are scheduled to hit that mark at the beginning of 2019.
The $10 minimum is a real step forward, but it translates to just $20,000 a year. Two parents with two children working full-time and year-round at $10 an hour come in at less than two-thirds of the EPI’s modest basic family budget cost.
But for the reigning Republicans in Iowa, where the GOP now controls both the governor’s office and the state legislature, that’s just too kind to full-time workers at the bottom of the wage scale. The state House recently passed legislation, House File 295 (HF295), that would nullify the recent county-level minimum wage increases and prohibit local and county jurisdictions from passing such measures in the future. It’s like something out of Charles Dickens.
The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa has asked Johnson County employers to “stand up for our workers, and our values, and pledge that you will continue to honor the Johnson County minimum wage—no matter what the politicians in Des Moines decide.” That’s a modest request.
Red States Versus Blue Cities
It’s part of a bigger national story. As of last February, more than 40 U.S. cities and counties had enacted local minimum wage ordinances to address the inadequacies of federal and state minimum wage laws as well as differences in the cost of living. Under a measure passed by the Seattle City Council two years ago, that city’s minimum wage will be $15 in 2021. Other cities, including Baltimore and Minneapolis, also are considering hikes to $15.
Big business has swiped back at these local initiatives. Under pressure from corporations and the lobbyists and right-wing think tanks they pay for, 23 states have passed laws that “preempt” cities from passing their own local minimum wage laws. In 2016, for example, Alabama passed a preemption bill after the city of Birmingham passed a local minimum wage law. The legislation blocks future local minimum wages and invalidates Birmingham’s measure.
Republican-controlled North Carolina has lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to an economic boycott sparked by its passage of House Bill 2 (HB2), widely known as “the bathroom bill.” The bill achieved notoriety by requiring transgender people to use bathrooms consistent with the gender listed on their birth certificates. But a less-known part of the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” also removes the ability of city and county officials to set minimum wage standards for private employers.
The rash of preemption bills is concentrated in Republican-controlled states largely in the South. A national map highlighting these states in red shows that preemption bills recently passed in every Southern state except Arkansas, Virginia and West Virginia. (The non-Southern preemption states include Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Colorado and Utah.)
The “Patchwork” and “Competitiveness” Ruses
Why such vicious legislation? In Iowa, as across the nation, Republicans pushing for the preemption of local minimum wage ordinances typically claim to be concerned about having a hodgepodge of wage levels across the state. HF295 sponsor Iowa House Rep. John Landon, R-Ankeny, channels the standard Republican conventional wisdom when he says that his measure seeks to create “a level playing field” in all Iowa communities. He told The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette: “This comes because of the patchwork effect that it creates on trying to operate businesses that are multicounty, that are multistate. It makes it difficult to keep track of each and every initiative that is passed that would impact that business as far as wages or other conditions.” Preemption proponents also argue that cities and counties become less competitive with surrounding areas when they implement a higher local minimum wage.
The “patchwork” complaint is misleading and probably disingenuous. As the National Employment Law Project notes, the real goal behind the preemption bills is to help business keep wages down:
[B]usinesses are accustomed to dealing with varying rules across cities and counties. … Businesses have adapted to varying rules concerning traffic, business licenses, construction, zoning, and many other local laws. Local minimum wages are no different. Most minimum wage preemption laws have been pushed and adopted by largely conservative state legislatures in recent years in response to pressure from big business, which generally opposes minimum wage increases. In other words, the real motivation behind recent state preemption bills is not uniformity, but rather a desire to limit the ability of local elected officials to raise pay.
At the same time, studies by academic economists at the University of California, University of Massachusetts and University of North Carolina have found no negative competitiveness impact of increased local minimum wages.
A False Paradox
It might seem paradoxical that the Republicans—who claim to trumpet small and local over big and centralized government—would so blatantly quash local power. But there’s no contradiction, really. The real issue isn’t big and central government versus small and local government. It’s big and small government—state power—favoring the business class over the working poor. The right-wing Republicans and their moderate Republican and corporate Democratic allies in the nation’s state governments side with the business elite, which has vast financial and organizational resources to invest in local, state and national politics and policy.
The Preemption Champion
Nullifying local control over wages has become a significant priority for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful corporate-backed group with huge lobbying influence at the state level. Founded in 1973, ALEC has linked corporate America to lawmakers to generate hundreds of “model policies” that have entered state codes from coast to coast. The exchange council has been drafting “model” state measures to preempt local minimum wages for 15 years.
ALEC’s preemption agenda goes beyond minimum wages. It has worked to preempt liberal and progressive local measures on a large number of issues, including guns, tobacco, wages, family and medical leave for workers, racial discrimination, immigrant rights (including sanctuary cities), recycling, fracking, pesticides and bans on sugar drinks and plastic bags. (Iowa’s HF295 also forbids local governments from implementing a soda tax or banning the use of plastic bags by retailers.)
Thirty-six states introduced legislation preempting cities’ laws in 2016. There should be more preemption bills in 2017, thanks to Republican electoral victories last fall. State-level preemption is largely a Republican phenomenon. The Republicans now control 34 state legislatures and hold both the governor’s office and the state legislative chambers in 25 states.
Preemption measures generally survive judicial review. As David Graham noted in The Atlantic, “[T]he Constitution doesn’t mention cities at all, and since the late 19th century, courts have accepted that cities are creatures of the state. … Some states delegate certain powers to cities, but states remain the higher authority.”
Why Boycott Iowa?
Collective Bargaining Rights Stripped
If North Carolina can suffer economic boycotts for violating transgender people’s civil rights, might progressives want to consider a boycott of Republican-controlled Iowa for its deepening assault on working people of all genders and sexual identities? Last month, the state government in Des Moines followed in the footsteps of Wisconsin’s right-wing Scott Walker-led state government by abolishing public sector workers’ rights to collective bargaining.
Workers’ Comp Rollback
Bills introduced in the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate this year are designed to significantly roll back compensation benefits for injured workers. In addition, the bills would allow employers to deny benefits if an injured worker tested positive for drugs or alcohol.
Preempting Family Leave
Iowa HF295 also would prevent local and county governments from requiring private employers to provide workers with paid family leave.
Preempting Sanctuary Cities and Campuses
Along with their assault on workers, Iowa Republicans are moving ahead with numerous other right-wing policies. An “anti-sanctuary city” measure (HF265) would forbid cities, counties and public universities from creating a “safe haven” for undocumented immigrants. Law enforcement officers would not be able to be directed to not gather and communicate to federal authorities information on the immigration status of local residents and students.
Steve King: An Open White Nationalist in the U.S. House
On issues of race, ethnicity and immigration, perhaps Iowa should be boycotted until it convinces its westernmost congressman, Steve King, to resign from the U.S. House of Representatives. Last Sunday, the openly racist and nativist white nationalist sparked public outrage when he tweeted in support of the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
King doubled down on his remarks, going on CNN to add: “I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same, from that perspective.” King also went on an Iowa radio station to “predict … that Hispanics and the blacks will be fighting each other” before whites become a minority in the U.S. He said that his “somebody else’s babies” comment wasn’t racist but was about “our stock, our country, our culture, our civilization.” He added that “we need to have enough babies to replace ourselves.” Getting King to resign, however, might not be so easy. Many Iowans appreciate his bluntness, the same way many Americans appreciate Donald Trump’s brusqueness.
Turning to women’s rights, the Iowa Senate recently passed Senate File 2. This measure would block public funding to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. Most abortions would be outlawed 20 weeks after fertilization under Iowa Senate File 53, which has cleared a Senate committee. (Editor’s note: You can see the disposition of all of the bills in the Iowa Legislature here.)
Iowa House Study Bill 133 would rewrite Iowa’s weapons laws to include “stand your ground” provisions. It also would allow children to use handguns and ease some permitting processes. An amended version has cleared the House Judiciary Committee.
Rolling Back Voter Rights
Iowa House Study Bill 93 and Senate Study Bill 1163 would implement new voter identification requirements—a measure designed to suppress the Democratic-leaning votes of minorities and college and university students.
Dismantling a Blue Water Utility
Iowa House File 484 and Senate Study Bill 1146 would dismantle the longstanding Des Moines Water Works (DmWW)—a metropolitan water utility under the control of a board appointed by Des Moines’ mayor. The measure is red-state retaliation against the blue-city water board for filing a federal lawsuit against four rural northwest Iowa counties that have permitted toxic nitrate farm runoff to pollute water used by the Des Moines region. The lawsuit antagonized Republican-leaning agriculture interests, which spend a lot on elections and lobbying.
As a result of this big ag activism, The Des Moines Register noted four years ago, “Iowa counties that have zoning laws regulating the placement of factories and homes are forbidden by state law from regulating the sites of animal confinements. Farmers are asked only to voluntarily comply with conservation programs designed to reduce nitrates in rivers, lakes and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.” The lawsuit would be dropped under the new Republican-sponsored legislation.
An Ecocidal “Public Utility”
Speaking of water, last year, Iowa’s governor-appointed Iowa Utilities Board approved the construction of the ecocidal Dakota Access pipeline across 18 Iowa counties on grounds that the project was a “public utility” serving the people of Iowa. It is no such thing. The Dakota pipeline will carry fracked oil from North Dakota to Illinois for the profit of drillers and the pipeline’s corporate builder, Energy Transfer Partners. It carries no discernible benefits for Iowa while it helps big carbon cook the planet past its climatological tipping point and threatens numerous rivers, streams and fields across the state.
This alone might be grounds for caring consumers, businesses, investors and convention- and event-planners to think seriously about boycotting the state of Iowa. If we don’t take dramatic action to get off fossil fuels and avert the global-warming specter of environmental catastrophe in the next 10 years or so, nothing else that liberals and progressive care about—livable wages, gun laws, immigrant and abortion rights, union bargaining power, universal health insurance, rights of free assembly—will matter all that much.
Iowa Republican legislators have joined their counterparts in at least 15 other Republican-controlled states in advancing measures to discourage and criminalize popular protest actions. A state Senate bill, filed after 100 anti-Trump protesters (including this writer) closed Interstate Highway 80 near Iowa City, would make blocking high-speed roads a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $7,500 in fines.
But it may be unfair to single out Iowa. Many, if not most, U.S. states are boycott-worthy in this dark right-wing moment. Policy developments at the national level are all too often overshadowed by mainstream media’s obsession with the rolling “This Week in Trump” spectacle. But the great Trump matador’s cape of distraction can be even more deadly at the state level, where big money may speak louder than it does in Washington—and where many policies that matter to ordinary citizens and workers are made.