Below the Living Wage

Study finds most Idahoans' pay doesn't add up


Feeling warm and comfy thanks to that salary of yours? If your paycheck covers the heating bill and the rest of life's necessities, consider yourself among a minority.

The most recent in a string of wage study found that most existing Idaho jobs do not pay a living wage--a income that allows families to meet their basic needs without public assistance and provides some ability to save for emergencies or future expenses.

When existing jobs fall short of paying enough to support Idaho families, the state must do more to help people make ends meet, according to the findings of the most recent Northwest Job Gap Study: Living Wage Jobs in the Economy. Boise economist Don Reading notes that everyone pays for low wages in the form of Medicaid and public assistance programs.

The report found that for many families in the Northwest, working hard is simply not enough. The study, released by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (NFCO), found that less than half of existing jobs pay a living wage for two working parents with two children.

"There's a segment of the economy that is working, yet they're running on a treadmill. And the faster they run the further they fall behind," Reading says. The study calculates Idaho's living wage at $13.24 for a family of four with two wage-earning parents. Only 46 percent of all jobs offer this wage. And only 25 percent of jobs pay a living wage for a single-income family of four. A Northwest Federation study published last year found 78 percent of all Idaho job openings do not pay a living wage for a single adult with two children.

"It's not gauged on a plush standard," Reading says of living-wage calculations that vary from state to state. Most middle-income families in the U.S. lost ground between 2000 and 2003 and now have less income available to meet their needs, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington D.C.-based think tank. Family spending on higher health costs has escalated in recent years, further eroding household incomes, EPI reports.

More than 70 communities across the nation have enacted ordinances that mandate employers pay a wage that meets the costs of living, according to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The NFCO study authors suggest folks pressure politicians to create policies that pay for the costs of living. Wages are on the agenda for lawmakers concerned about the Wal-Martization of America--a bottom-line business trend that often leaves workers in the bottom pay ranks and without benefits. Lawmakers including  Rep. Tom Trail (R-Moscow) and Rep. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow) have stepped out with organizations such as the Idaho Community Action Network in highlighting the hard decisions families have to make when their wages don't add up to the costs of living.

"The state in many ways is prospering, but there is a segment that is not keeping up with that prosperity," Reading says.