DES MOINES — Sen. Joe Bolkcom says he took the challenge to live on the $77 in weekly net proceeds that a typical minimum wage worker has to spend on food and transportation and found that he couldn’t do it.
Even though he rode his bike to work, planned a “no frills” diet and declined some invitations to attend events, the Iowa City Democrat said he came up short when his legislative duties required him to drive to the state Capitol in Des Moines for a hearing that blew his money on gas and lunch.
“It was a very, very small taste of the inconvenience and the need to manage your money very well and plan things and no frills,” Bolkcom said during a conference call with reporters. “It’s harsh and I think for a lot of people that live on minimum wage week in and week out, it sucks.”
Likewise, Sue Dinsdale, an Iowa Citizen Action Network who also is a member of the raise the wage coalition that favors gradually increasing the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10, said she tried and failed to make it on $77 that a low-wage worker has to spend after taxes and housing expenses are deducted.
Dinsdale said she spent her money on gas and groceries but en route to work developed car trouble and needed a tow and repairs totaling $600, “which highlighted to me that one tiny thing to us is a devastating life experience for someone making the minimum wage. Without a car, they wouldn’t have a job,” she said.
Progress Iowa leader Matt Sinovac said the challenge – which was made to all elected officials in Iowa but only accepted by Bolkcom and two other Senate Democrats – was intended to drive home the need to provide a living wage for working families who struggle to make ends meet making $7.25 per hour. He said more than 300,000 Iowans would get a raise if the minimum wage boosted at the state and federal levels.
However, the Washington-based Employment Policies Institute begain airing a television commercial this week in the Des Moines market citing a report from nonpartisan government economists at the Congressional Budget Office estimating that up to a million jobs could disappear nationwide if the federal minimum wage is raised to $10.10 per hour.
“Wage hikes cost jobs,” EPI research director Michael Saltsman said in a statement announcing the ad campaign in Iowa. “Instead of creating more barriers to entry-level employment, legislators in Iowa and Washington, DC, should instead focus on policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit that can actually help reduce poverty.”
Bolkcom and Sinovac refuted the claim, saying that paying workers a living wage puts more money in their pockets that they then spend in the community which benefits the economy and creates a demand for more jobs.
Bolkcom acknowledged there is a concern about challenges that some companies paying low wages might face it the minimum was increased, but he noted “we heard those same arguments when we went from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour and we didn’t see a massive loss in jobs.”
But after taking the challenge for a week, Bolkcom said “what I came away with is it’s simply not fair to work hard every day, play by the rules and still not have the money you need to support yourself or your family.”
Waterloo resident Chris Schwartz of Americans for Democratic Action-Iowa predicted the minimum wage would be a decisive issue in many races in the Nov. 4 election.
During a campaign stop in Hiawatha Tuesday, Gov. Terry Branstad said he is sympathetic of people trying to live on a minimum-wage income but he also worried that raising the level too much could cost jobs so he would want to know what legislation would look like in its final form.
He said there is economic uncertainty in Iowa right now because corn prices have dropped below the cost of production and farmland prices are on the decline due in part to the future of the renewable fuel standard at the federal level.
Branstad also noted that his opponent, Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, supports a hike in the minimum wage but majority Democrats in the Iowa Senate failed to move a bill last session when they had the opportunity. “I find that hypocritical,” he said.
“It looks more like it’s all about politics as opposed to what’s the best policy to serve the needs of the people of Iowa. My focus is on policy, not politics,” the GOP governor said. “I want to do all I can to bring good-paying jobs to Iowa and make sure Iowans have the skills to fill those jobs.”
[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had an incorrect headline that read “Three Iowa senators take on $77 a day minimum wage challenge.” The headline has been corrected to reflect a weekly wage rather than daily.]