Making Ends Meet

Working toward a living wage


On July 1, the Idaho legislature passed a bill offering a tax credit for employers who create new jobs at or above $15.15 per hour. To know what this means for living wage advocates in Idaho requires a look into the wider context of the living wage issue. The issue has increasingly occupied people as the employment landscape transforms and people are finding it harder to make ends meet. Over the past decade the living wage discussion has become the Living Wage Campaign as well as living wage movements across the country; ongoing discussion about making a living is shifting from what is fair to what should be official.

Living wage reforms aim to statutorily enact salary levels. Perhaps the most visible group is the Living Wage Campaign, championed by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as "the nation's oldest and largest grassroots organization of low and moderate income people." Acting independently, local community labor groups organize to campaign for laws requiring mandatory wage minimums, or a "living wage." At its Web site (, ACORN describes the scope and aims of the Living Wage Campaign. With grassroots beginnings in Baltimore in 1994, the campaign aimed to cover city contractors. Since then living wage ordinance movements have spread to numerous cities nationwide (beyond the scope of just government contractors) with some 70 local movements around the country in cities like Portland, Los Angeles and Boston. In June of this year a living wage went into effect in Santa Fe, where several weeks ago a judge upheld the law while rejecting the local Chamber of Commerce's request to halt the living wage law until after appeal.

Even among like-minded advocates, there is no consensus on the definition of a "living wage." According to ACORN, a living wage is the income needed to keep a family above the poverty line. The poverty line, as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is $18,400 for a family of four. In a normal 52-week year working 40 hours per week, the living wage is $8.85 per hour. However, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development states, "incomes set at the 'poverty line' are not enough for families to survive." The group cites expenses beyond food and shelter such as health care, transportation and recreation as costs that are difficult to pay at the poverty line. Beyond being something above the so-called "poverty line," the meaning of a "living wage" varies according to cost of living and what individual advocacy groups deem as necessities. For some groups, necessities include healthcare and other standard benefits. Other groups factor in an amount of discretionary/recreational income as well.

Living wage advocacy has its downsides. According to the Employment Policies Institute (a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies public policy issues concerning employment growth), critical flaws exist in the Living Wage Campaign and in living wage movements in general. EPI's position reflects the prevailing criticism: increases in statutory wage minimums will end up costing jobs. Critics maintain that numbers used in calculating living wage levels are misleading, as they fail to take into account that many low-wage families do not exist on a single income, and that many minimum wage workers are not household income providers. Critics also say that living wage ordinances will artificially inflate unskilled workers, not only tying the hands of business but ultimately costing those unskilled workers their jobs. ACORN itself sued the State of California in 1996 to avoid being forced to adhere to the minimum wage, citing in their supporting brief that "the more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker ... the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire."

Boise's position as a metropolitan area hovering just under the national averages for both annual income and cost of living makes living wage issues a relevant topic locally. While there isn't a formal Living Wage Campaign currently in Boise, at least one group has its eye on the issue. Mia Crosthwaite, legal liaison for Catholic Charities as well as the Catholic Church of Idaho, states that the living wage issue is one of the group's top priorities. Remember that living wage incentive in the first line of this article? Catholic Charities, working in conjunction with the governor's office, worked to get that tax incentive bill passed (in effect July 1, retroactive to January).

Catholic Charities' interest in the living wage issue comes from a religious perspective. "Human work is valuable because it is the ongoing work of the creator," states Crosthwaite. Her opinion is that it is immoral for people to be working full time at a wage that doesn't meet their basic needs. Catholic Charities derives their definition of a "living wage" from trends nationwide and sets it somewhere between $10 and $15 per hour. Crosthwaite says that what constitutes a living wage is vague, but it is what a family requires to meet their "basic needs and dignity in life."

Though the tax credit was passed by the Idaho legislature, another living wage bill did not fare so well. Working with State Senator Mike Burkett, Catholic Charities proposed a bill requiring employers to report wage rates on quarterly employment reports. Though it seems like a small thing, no such data currently exists. Bill sponsors felt that reporting wage rates would better aid them to see who and how many people a living wage would affect. Ultimately, the bill failed because of financial unfeasibility. The Department of Labor's outmoded computer system cannot handle what amounts to adding another column for reporting. On Catholic Charities' agenda for next time is to determine a way to make it happen without the enormous and unrealistic expense of replacing the DOL's computer system.

At this point, Catholic Charities is focusing on small conquests regarding the living wage issue. They aren't looking for legislation mandating a statewide living wage standard. An across the board living wage would have to be federal, explains Crosthwaite, because if Idaho were to pass blanket living wage legislation, businesses would flee to nearby Oregon, Nevada or other neighboring states without such legislation. Instead Catholic Charities prefers to focus on lobbying for living wage tax incentives and standards for government contractors.