Handi Lutfi and her family moved from poverty to independence after Johnson County raised the minimum wage in graduated steps from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour over a two-year period. While some cities within the county chose not to raise the minimum wage, North Liberty did, and that’s where Handi’s employer is located. “It picked us up from poverty. We are independent,” the wife and mother of three sons said. The family no longer relies on Medicaid and is able to make insurance payments. But a bill speeding recklessly through the Iowa Legislature would impose a nearly 30 percent pay cut on Handi, her husband and other Iowans who have been lifted up from poverty-level wages.
House File 295, passed earlier this month, forbids Iowa counties from enacting ordinances that exceed or conflict with state or federal law regarding the minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour in Iowa. The bill, now headed for the Senate, voids ordinances in counties that enacted a higher wage than the state’s minimum. The Iowa Policy Project reports that about 29,000 Iowans have seen their wages increase because of minimum wage ordinances enacted in Johnson and Linn counties. By April, that figure would more than double to 65,000 Iowans when the first step of the Polk County minimum wage takes effect.
The bill’s supporters argue that a uniform minimum wage creates a level playing field for attracting businesses to Iowa. But rescinding the higher minimum wage is cruel. It reduces the buying power and the quality of life for thousands of Iowans. A moral response: raise the minimum wage across the board to $10.10 per hour.
Opponents fear that any increase might adversely impact small businesses, and result in layoffs or increased costs for consumers. Some small businesses, however, are exempt from the minimum wage law because they don’t meet the revenue threshold and don’t engage in interstate commerce (see http://tinyurl.com/hafkmp2 for details). Furthermore, research has shown that higher county-level minimum wages have no effect on overall employment, the Iowa Policy Project says.
“Minimum wages were never meant to support a family,” a letter writer said in the Quad-City Times. But, in fact, many families struggle to support their families on the now nine-year-old minimum wage because companies aren’t willing to pay more. You can bet that the cost of basic necessities — food, shelter, clothing and transportation, for example — has increased in nine years. The Iowa Public Policy Project reported last month that 31 percent of minimum-wage earners are age 40 or older, almost three-fifths work full-time, 31 percent are parents, and just one in six is a teenager.
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of the state’s bishops, supports an increase in the minimum wage. “… The current minimum wage falls short for its failure to provide sufficient resources for individuals to form and support families. A full-year, full-time worker making the minimum wage does not make enough money to raise a child free from poverty. Almost 70 percent of workers that would be directly affected in Iowa are age 20 or over. The state has more than 80,000 children with a parent who makes minimum wage.”
An increase in the minimum wage is good public policy and will strengthen Iowa’s families, the ICC says. Go to the ICC’s online “Action Center” (votervoice.net/ICC/Campaigns) to send a message to your representative and senator in favor of an increase in the minimum wage. Encourage the businesses you patronize to support a higher minimum wage.
Father Rudolph Juarez, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City, helped craft the Johnson County minimum wage ordinance and said it benefits employers and employees. Businesses retain quality workers when they pay higher minimum wages. Case in point: Kurt Friese, who serves on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and owns Devotay restaurant in Iowa City, has always paid over the minimum wage. “Low wages lead to high turnover,” he says. “It ends up being more expensive to pay less.”
Last week in conjunction with International Women’s Day, the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) of Eastern Iowa organized a rally in Iowa City calling for protection of the higher minimum wage. Mazahir Salih, president of CWJ, and a wife and mother of five school-age children, remembers living on minimum wage when she arrived in the U.S. 20 years ago. What if lawmakers had to live on $7.25 an hour, she wonders. Would they change their minds about raising the minimum wage?
“The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.” — Pope Francis
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor