Dealing with Low Wages in Iowa

Iowa Policy Project

Iowa Policy Project

In adding my congratulations to Mike Owen for his promotion as executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, I also suggest readers check out his latest blog post titled, “We promise: We won’t cook burgers.” It is about the spurious advice of Visa® and McDonald’s®, that their lowly paid workers should become financially sustainable by working a second job. Iowa Policy Project is one of the few Iowa think tanks that has done substantial work studying living wage, low wages, and minimum wage. It is a subject close to my interests, and Mike and his team’s work at Iowa Policy Project have informed some of my thinking on low wage workers. It will be good to have Mike as executive director.

With regard to the Visa® and McDonald’s® suggestion of securing a second job, it seems a bit reactionary to me. Another low wage worker employer, Walmart, has been consistently hammered by progressive writers (see Thomas Stackpole at Mother Jones) for advising their employees on how to leverage the governmental social safety network of energy assistance, SNAP, Medicaid and other programs. The second job suggestion is an alternate version of the Walmart story: we won’t pay a living wage, so employees are on their own to sustain financial viability.

There is more to working a low wage job than pay. There has to be because the cost of living, including health care, transportation, food, shelter, and interest on debt, is more than low wage jobs pay, even two of them. Little would change if the minimum wage were raised to over $10 per hour as some propose. Low wage jobs fall short of a living wage, so people have to adapt, and one of the ways they do is to take advantage of governmental assistance programs. Beside government programs and working additional jobs, what else is there?

Another payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services are available because of work relationships in a low wage job. A tattoo artist offers his ink at a discount, people of means offer loans, and gardeners offers to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There is ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in low wage work places is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level. These things have little to do with the progressive argument about wages, but they are every bit as important.

The tone deaf suggestions of Visa® and McDonald’s® demonstrate a lack of understanding of how people operate. Namely, if the company articulates the deceit, people may start believing it, maybe they will stay with the company a bit longer, and the cost of employee turnover can be reduced. A cynical view? Not really.

Working two jobs may be a necessity for many, but if we are on our own, as corporations want us to be, life becomes less about the job and more about who we know that can help us when we need a hand. Thanks for the suggestions and financial planning tools corporations, but no thanks, we can get by with a little help from our friends.

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