Idaho's Living Wage

Idaho newspapers and airwaves were filled with statistics on Aug. 29: 13 to 35--the losing effort of the Boise State Broncos in their Aug. 28 season opener against Ole Miss; 4.2 percent--the rate that the United States' economy grew in the second quarter of 2013; nine--the number of years that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had been a couple prior to their Aug. 28 wedding.

But Gem State citizens were hard-pressed to find adequate media coverage surrounding another, more personal number: $14.57. That's Idaho's so-called "living wage," revealed in a stunning report, "Families Out of Balance," published Aug. 28 by the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society, which examined households in 10 states, including Idaho.

Simply put, the living wage is the hourly pay needed to cover the cost of housing, food, utilities and other core expenses, including modest savings. The calculation included a telephone, but not cable television or Internet service.

One need look no further than Idaho's minimum wage--$7.52 per hour--to find the daily dilemma faced by way too many Idahoans: where to cut? Health care? Savings? Food?

And that $14.57 is a living wage for a single-adult household. It balloons to $19.72 for a single adult with a school-age child; $25.12 for a single adult with a toddler and a school-age child; $28.14 for two adults (one of whom is working) with a toddler and school-age child; and $17.69 per adult for a household of two working adults with a toddler and school-age child.

"We try to save for emergencies," 21-year-old Lewiston husband and father Teejay Henry told researchers as part of the study. "But every month something comes up and that extra $10 was always spent on something important."

Henry, his wife and 1-year-old daughter are the definition of Idaho's working poor. He takes home about $1,600 per month as a tire shop mechanic. His wife brings home a little less than $300 per month as a laundry aide in a retirement facility and they have to pay around $280 a month for childcare.

"Our reality is that we can't even afford to live in our own house because rent is out of our budget on what the two of us earn," said Henry. "We are fortunate to live in a nice house as roommates, but, as a young family, we can't wait for the day we can move into our own place."

That day is increasingly further away for many Idahoans. The analysis, the first in a series of "Job Gap Economic Prosperity" reports, reveals that the average Idaho college graduate walks away with a diploma and $26,751 of debt, a 23 percent increase from only four years ago. The average credit card debt in Idaho is $4,549. For those families fortunate enough to have put their own roof over their heads, the report indicated the sobering fact that 22 percent of Idaho mortgages were underwater.

The report also waded into the politically charged debate over Medicaid expansion, which the Idaho Legislature has yet to consider.

"Expanding Medicaid would allow thousands of [Idaho] workers access to affordable health care, helping workers stay healthy and reducing medical reports," researchers wrote. "This in turn will decrease their likelihood of holding medical debt, allowing them to use their limited resources toward other necessary expenses."

Meanwhile for the Henry family, it's a daily struggle to be one of the growing number of working poor whose chief labor is keeping poverty from their doorstep.

"We've been getting by, but with my growing daughter the expenses also continue to grow," Henry said.

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