Low-end jobs, low pay contribute to minority poverty in Iowa

Undocumented workers pay taxes, don't see benefits

The main entrance to the West Liberty Foods turkey-processing plant, a major employer for Latinos in West Liberty. (Lyle
The main entrance to the West Liberty Foods turkey-processing plant, a major employer for Latinos in West Liberty. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

The 2010 census showed 43 percent of black Iowans are living in poverty. That’s two of every five black residents.

The poverty rate for white Iowans, meanwhile, dropped from one in four in 1960 to one in 10 in 1970 — and remained that way through the 2010 census. Latino poverty has been somewhere in the middle since 1970, at 27 percent.

How did Iowa end up with black and Latino poverty rates that exceed the national rates of 27 percent for blacks and 25 percent for Latinos?

Low-end jobs and inadequate wages, mostly related to a lack of education and training opportunities, have contributed to the rising poverty rate, say Iowans dealing with the gaps.

“Martin Luther King’s dream of equality didn’t stop with ‘we can make sure blacks and whites can go to the same school.’ It was really bigger than that,” Fort Dodge community leader Charles Clayton said. “And we should be looking at ways to make it more of an equal playing field when it comes to businesses, homeownership, sending kids to college, passing on your legacy or wealth to your children.”

He spoke as part of a special project, Iowa’s Opportunity Gap, in which the news organization IowaWatch examined racial achievement inequality in the state in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Burlington Hawk Eye, Fort Dodge Messenger and West Liberty Index.

U.S. Census data from 1960-2010 revealing disparities between whites, African-Americans and Latinos were compiled by the Colorado-based, non-profit journalism organization I-News and made available for the project through the non-profit IowaWatch.

The 2010 median family income for white Iowans was $62,423, while black families earned half that — $26,760. The median income of Latino families was $38,030, the census data show.

Income inequality in the state has grown dramatically since 1960 when white family median income was $5,050, black family median income was $4,350 and Latino family median income was better than either, at $6,550.

Tough to break the mold

Jobs become the focus in bids to close the gaps, although finding time and resources to do that on a community level is not easy.

Leaders for Athletics for Education and Success — a Fort Dodge group led and co-founded by Clayton that teaches life skills to young people through sports camps, clinics and after-school programs — has tried setting up a fund to help start minority businesses. They call the effort the Martin Luther King Development Fund.

Some of the committee’s members have moved out of town, though, and the fund is dormant, with no money disbursed, Clayton said. Remaining committee members want to keep the idea alive, he said.

“Because it may be harder for a minority, it may be more difficult for someone of low-income status to go to the bank and get a traditional loan. Maybe the committee can help. Or that was the plan the committee had developed,” Clayton said.

Central Iowa Shelter and Services director Tony Timm said education and training can help the impoverished get back on their feet.

Timm said his Des Moines shelter has a service wing with a classroom and 46 computer stations. Des Moines Area Community College teaches GED classes there twice a week.

“The reality is that, at the end of the day, everybody is still a person, regardless of where they come from. We all have the same hurdles to overcome,” Timm said.

Barriers to education

Latinos Unidos of Iowa President Lena Avila Robison said low wages are a hurdle for Latinos, especially if they are undocumented workers.

“If you are undocumented, for example, you are paid menial wages,” Robison said.

“However, you pay for Social Security, you pay all the same things you and I pay,” she said, referring to wages withheld by employers and sent to the federal government. “They will never see a dime of that money.

“If you do a job and you’re doing it right, and you’re a human being doing it just like the one next to you, then they should be equal wages.”

On June 20, Gov. Terry Branstad signed an education appropriations bill with $5.5 million for adult education and literacy programs at community colleges and $15.3 million for work force training and economic development funds that would help minorities with little education or few job skills.

Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said the appropriations will help prepare more Iowans for middle-skill jobs.

“We’re working very hard because there are so many open jobs in Iowa,” he said. “We really need to bring more diverse populations into the workplace, particularly Latinos.”

The Iowa Skills2Compete Coalition, a group promoting work force development policies and including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and the Iowa Association of Community College Presidents, reports that 56 percent of jobs in the state are middle-skill jobs. Yet only 33 percent of Iowa workers have the necessary qualifications to do them.

The appropriations bill met many of the Coalition’s stated goals. Robison is skeptical, however, worrying that administrative costs will eat into direct training.

Decent pay is possible

Jose Duran, a Tyson Foods line worker who has lived in West Liberty since 1993, said government leaders in Iowa could help if they simply were more interested in Latino culture.

“Because the Latinos, we are many, and now we are no longer illegal. The majority have papers,” Duran said, speaking Spanish. “We are citizens, Americans, and even if we don’t speak English well, we contribute to the country.”

The language barrier is huge when it comes to Latinos getting a job.

“Thank God, Tyson is the only plant that pays equally, whether you speak English or not,” said Duran, who has been at Tyson’s Columbus Junction plant for 20 years, dating to before Tyson owned it. “… I have friends there who are Americans, and they are earning the same amount.”

Hourly production wages at the plant range from $13 to $15.25 an hour, while maintenance pay reaches $19.05 an hour, Tyson media relations director Gary Mickelson said in an email.

Benefits include health, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage, paid vacations and holidays, a 401(k) retirement savings plan, a stock purchase plan and tuition reimbursement program, he wrote.

Latinos represent the largest percentage of the Columbus Junction work force, followed by whites, Asians and blacks, Mickelson said.

West Liberty is 52 percent Latino and the home of West Liberty Foods, which is owned by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative and where many local Latinos get jobs. Many Latinos, whose families have lived there for decades, own businesses as well.

Latinos could do more to advance if they sought higher education, West Liberty City Council member Jose Zacarias said, but many he knows don’t realize that.

“The main reasons behind our presence here are economic reasons,” Zacarias said. “Once you see your kids working and the income starts getting better, you think that that’s it.”

So they remain stuck in entry-level jobs, unable to advance without further education at a community college or four-year school, he said.

Signs of growth in West Liberty

The Rev. Gregory Steckel was walking down a street in West Liberty with a reporter in August, talking about the town’s transformation into a Latino majority.

WWell, it’s a unique spot,” said Steckel, a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Amid the lengthy discussion about cultural diversity, he talked about the old West Liberty and new West Liberty. The turkey processing plant, West Liberty Foods, plays a big role in new West Liberty, he said.

It provides jobs, and the people who work there need housing, he said. Both lead to spending and growth.

So is the community growing?

“Right, exactly,” the priest said, “because of the possibility of a job. Very low unemployment rate, almost nonexistent. It’s just a real strange phenomenon.”--- Lauren Mills and Lyle Muller of IowaWatch contributed to this story.

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