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Mind the (Job) Gap

Idaho living wage, available jobs out of sync


Idaho will have paid out federal unemployment benefits to some workers for a continuous 99 weeks by year's end, including another 14-week extension announced this week. But unemployed and underemployed Idahoans are still living well below the comfort level expected for people in the northwestern United States of America.

Individuals in Idaho need to make $12.41 an hour to cover their housing, food, medical, transportation and other basic costs, according to the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, which conducts an annual job gap study. That's $25,818 a year.

A single parent with one child needs to make $21.90 an hour, or $45,549 a year, and a two-parent family of four should bring in a combined $34.97 an hour, or $72,740 a year.

That's just not happening for the majority of families.

There was one living wage job available for every three single adult job seekers in Idaho in 2008 (the latest year for which complete data is available), and one for every 16 single parent-two kid job seekers.

And we all know how 2009 has been.

"A living wage is that number where we have health insurance and we are able to save $50 a month for emergencies," said Terri Sterling, an unemployed community organizer and board member of the Idaho Community Action Network. "The American dream is not to own a home. The American dream is having the things that you need in life."

ICAN, a member of the Northwest Federation, wants Congress to create a new federal jobs program that would put some 2.5 million people to work across the country, Sterling said.

Sterling's family was featured in the 1999 job gap study when they were bringing in only $9.50 an hour. After the report came out, many people told her to go back to school and get a college degree.

She did, and even did work toward a master's degree. She found a job that paid $40,000 a year, but was laid off. Now she's pulling in only $362 a week in unemployment benefits and applying--in competition with her friend--for the same handful of jobs that appear in the Lewiston paper every week

"I can tell you, 10 years later, that it isn't any better," Sterling said. "People work at Walmart with a communications degree."

While 8,500 unemployed Idaho workers will get another 14 weeks on the rolls, benefits are set to decrease in January from $362 a week to $334 a week.

"Unemployment in Idaho is sad," Sterling said.

Within Idaho, families in Ada, Boise and Blaine counties have the highest needs for living wages, in part because of the higher cost of living. A decent job in Ada County should pay $13.08, and families of four (two adults, two children) need to bring in $36.93 an hour.

Compared to Washington, Oregon and Colorado, with their higher cost of living and higher unemployment, Idaho workers are doing better.

But Montana's living wage is well below Idaho's and there are more decent jobs available there. In Montana, there is almost one living-wage job for each single job seeker.

"That's good news," said Gerald "G" Smith, associate director of the Northwest Federation and an author of the job gap study. "There's good news for single adults, not so much for families."

Smith said that the differing job gap among states is related to state budgets and how much in the hole a particular state finds itself. But the study did not compare state to state, nor did it hypothesize as to how to bring more high-paying jobs to the Northwest.

Smith said the Recovery Act has helped put people back to work or keep them working, but it is not known how well-paid those stimulus jobs are, though many are in well-paying industries like construction and education.

"It's not just about jobs creation, it's about quality jobs creation," Smith said.

Another umbrella group of which ICAN is a part, United Vision for Idaho, came out of hibernation last week swinging its tax-policy ax and calling on the feds to allow the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire and apply new taxes to the wealthy.

UVI, which helps a slew of progressive-minded Idaho groups raise money and network, has been pretty quiet for the last year, reassessing its mission. But they have decided to redouble their efforts in rural Idaho, venturing out from Boise occasionally to listen to the folks.

"When I'm talking to people they're just absolutely blown away that people in Boise care about them," said Adrienne Evans, UVI's newly minted director.

While citydesk found it a tad out of touch that UVI's big announcement was held on a random freezing afternoon on the steps of the Capitol Annex with a handful of people reading speeches about sunsetting the Bush tax cuts in two years, Evans assures us that they have more in store for rural Idaho.

She spent that last six months on a rural listening tour, funded by U.S. Action, aimed at collecting stories of Idahoans and their feelings about taxes and budgets.

"It was really an opportunity to have Idaho voices heard in a way that often doesn't happen," Evans said.