Idaho sees growing population of working poor

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by Justin Corr

KREM.com

Posted on February 25, 2014 at 8:04 AM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 25 at 8:27 AM

CALDWELL -- The economy is coming out of the recession, and more Idahoans are getting back to work. However, that doesn't mean they're all able to get off government assistance or stop needing the help of local charities. It's a growing population in Idaho, the working poor.

We stopped by the Salvation Army in Caldwell, where the volunteers were doing some of what they do best, giving food boxes to families in need.

Jennifer Dee picked up a food box. "My kids would go hungry, if we didn't have the Salvation Army here."

Lieutenant Brent Church says they hand out more than 300 of those boxes a month, but he's seeing a growing population, picking them up. "The growing population is, what I would like to say is, the working poor."

Church says about half of these boxes go to people with jobs. "You can see it on the peoples' faces... They just come in a break down because this is the first time they've ever come in to the food pantry and they don't know where else to turn."

Dan Jacobs also came in to get a food box. "It's like banging your head against the wall. You can't seem to get ahead. There's no way. Right when you think, 'OK, I got a job; I'm going to make it today.' You're like, 'Oh, I'm broke.'"

Both Jacobs and Eric Johnson (who also picked up a box) are looking for work now, but even when they were employed, they needed this help.

"Having two small kids, it's extremely frustrating," said Johnson. "You get up early in the morning, or whatever shift you work, and you go and do an honest day's work, and expect to get paid appropriately. But sometimes, it's not enough."

"They work 2-3 jobs and they still struggle," said Church.

Why is this happening? Everyone seems to agree, a big reason are Idaho's wages. Idaho's median individual income is $11.15 an hour, which makes it the lowest in the nation.

A household with one adult making $11.15 with two kids would actually make about $16.93 an hour, when you add in tax credits. But, that's still low, when you consider that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates a livable wage for that household is $22.25 an hour. Where does this Idaho family get the assistance to cover another $5.78 an hour?

Director of Idaho Health and Welfare Dick Armstrong says his department helps. "I think it's a shame that people are put into full-time work, and they barely get by."

They now assist 20 percent of Idaho's population with cash, Medicaid, food stamps, or childcare. That's up from 13 percent just 10 years ago, but that doesn't mean Idaho is a welfare state.

In fact, a recent study found Idaho with its total benefit package adding up to about $5.36 an hour for a full-time worker, ranked 50th in the nation, and a requirement for all able-bodied adults to get public assistance, is that they're working, or looking for work.

"It's how they survive," said Armstrong. "They're doing everything they can to support their families."

Idaho does top a national list when it comes to wages, and the percentage of people making minimum wage, which is tied to the federal, at $7.25 an hour.

When asked if Idaho's minimum is a livable wage, Armstrong flatly said, "No."

That's why there's currently a legislative push to raise Idaho's minimum wage.

C.J. Church is a waiter at Addie's Restaurant in Boise. He makes minimum wage, and loves the idea of it going up. "It would help me a lot, actually. I'd be able to actually save money. Right now, all my money just goes to rent."

However, he also knows that business has been slow, and says right now, the owner doesn't have enough to pay her workers more. "There's money to go around, just not enough to give everybody more money."

That's why Ken Edmunds, Director of the Idaho Department of Labor believes raising the minimum wage is an artificial answer to Idaho's low wage problem. "We've been working so hard to create jobs that we need to change our emphasis from creating jobs to creating better-paying jobs."

Edmunds says bringing more businesses in to Idaho that offers better-paying jobs is key, but he believes the big problem is that much of the Idaho workforce isn't qualified to fill those better-paying jobs. "It really distresses me every time I talk to employers who say, 'I have jobs, I can't fill them.'"

Both Edmunds and Armstrong say it will take a collaborative effort to motivate people to seek out career training and improve education in the state to raise Idaho's wages.

According to Armstrong, "It's only through an educated workforce that you'll bring in businesses that will pay the higher wage."

Edmunds adds, "It's not a short-term answer. We have challenges because our workforce is not as skilled as it should be, but there are lots of options to get people to a higher skill level... If we have skilled people, they will earn more."

So, if those are the long-term solutions, what do Idaho's working poor do in the short-term, besides looking for training? Well, maybe it's like Eric Johnson told us, "You just dig your heels in, and keep working."

There is currently a bill in the Idaho Legislature that would raise Idaho's minimum wage to $9.75 by 2015. It's sponsor, Senator Michelle Stennett, said that would help keep skilled workers in Idaho and be a boost to the whole economy.

 

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