Living Low

Study finds paychecks don't add up for Idaho's working families


How does your paycheck look? Do you earn at least $27 per hour? If you're the breadwinner in the family and you don't meet that mark, you're earning less than a living wage. And you've got plenty of company.

A wage report released Dec. 9 by the Alliance for a Just Society looked at what it takes to earn a decent living in Idaho's economy. The 2010 Northwest Job Gap study found that Idaho wages often don't meet family needs and many workers struggle to find employment that pays a living wage.

A two-income household with two children must earn a combined $36.24 per hour to take home a living wage while a single parent needs to earn at least $26.44 per hour. A single person must make at least $14.25 per hour to earn a living wage--or at least a salary that covers basic needs like health care or savings for emergencies without public assistance.

Of current job openings in Idaho, 88 percent pay less than a living wage for a family of three to four.

Salima Gahigiro of Boise stands as one of thousands of Idahoans whose wages don't meet her family's needs. The Tanzanian immigrant serves as the sole breadwinner for her four children and grandchild. The bread comes from Gahigiro's $7.25 per-hour work as a hotel housekeeper, but it's not enough to keep the family fed the entire month. And it's not enough to spare her from the constant psychological stress of economic uncertainty.

"I haven't been able to pay rent in two months. Yesterday my landlord gave us a three-day eviction notice. I ignored the notice, but I don't know what we are going to do. We are facing homelessness," Gahigiro told Job Gap researchers. "The financial stress is very hard on my family. I don't think it is psychologically healthy for them."

The report's authors note that the harm done to those working in low-wage jobs is enough to warrant an effective response from policy-makers. Leo Morales, policy director with the Idaho Community Action Network--an economic justice advocacy organization--called on lawmakers to address low wages through policy measures including support for living wage job growth, affordable housing and health-care reforms.

Some communities aim to boost earnings by adopting living wage mandates. About 140 laws across the country ensure that workers--mostly public employees and government contractors--earn a living wage. The City of Moscow adopted Idaho's first living wage ordinance in 2006 but not all proposals meet a welcoming response.

Proposed measures often face objection from business owners who fear wage ordinances would force lay-offs and redden their bottom line. Other opponents see wage mandates as a political manipulation of market forces. But economic justice advocates and scholars have found positive effects of living wage laws that boost the economy and the immediate well-being of individuals and families.

Stephanie Luce, a sociologist with the Political Economy Research Institute, found that boosting wages doesn't necessarily come at great expense to businesses, nor does it lead to job loss. Luce said higher wages could cost businesses an additional 1 percent of their operating costs, but offer significant and immediate improvements in the lives of cash-strapped workers.

The Job Gap study notes that the failure of many jobs to pay a living wage is not a new phenomenon, but part of a larger trend toward income inequality that preceded the economy's collapse.

"From 2001 to 2007, two-thirds of the income generated by the economy was absorbed by the top 1 percent of households in the country," Job Gap authors wrote. "In 2007, this top 1 percent also accounted for the greatest share of income since 1928."

Economic justice advocates note that while the Idaho job openings that offer families a living wage are few and far between, U.S. corporations closed a record third quarter, raking in profits of $1.66 trillion.

"Companies continue to make quite a bit of profit," Morales said. "It's quite a contrast to what working families are facing now."