Here’s an idea for state lawmakers: Listen to your constituents. About 7 in 10 Iowans favor an increase in the state’s $7.25 minimum hourly wage, according to a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll. Support has grown from 65 percent to 69 percent since the question was asked a year ago, and the vast majority who support raising the floor would increase it to at least $9 per hour.
Iowans know anyone other than a teenager living at home cannot sustain himself, let alone a family, on such paltry pay. They know the same leaders who bend over backwards to provide tax breaks for businesses should require businesses to pay workers a living wage. They know more than half the states — including Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska — have increased minimum wages above the federal floor of $7.25 per hour.
Why can’t Iowa lawmakers stand up for average people the way lawmakers in other states have done? Why isn’t Gov. Terry Branstad, who set the goal of increasing family incomes by 25 percent during his 2010 campaign, leading the charge? Why is a bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate to increase the wage to $8.75 an hour (over a two-year period) languishing in the Republican-controlled Iowa House?
The lack of action from Iowa’s leaders is baffling. The people of this state want an increase in minimum wage, meaning elected officials would hardly be jeopardizing their political futures by making it happen. And the argument against an increase feels contrived.
“It’s not just about paying their employees more. It’s actually just about the government telling them what they need to pay,” said Kristin Failor, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
By that logic, there should be no minimum wage at all. And perhaps no wage and hour or labor laws that provide marginal protection for American workers. If that pesky government would just get out of the way, employers would be free to do whatever they wanted, including paying employees even less.
Though some members of the Iowa Legislature have yet to figure it out, they are supposed to be working on behalf of Iowans. Raising the minimum wage would do that. A 2012 study from the Economic Policy Institute estimated that increasing the wage to $9.80 per hour would affect 332,000 Iowans, 81 percent of them 20 years old or older. Those people would spend the extra wages, generating economic activity and creating more jobs. And considering higher incomes would disqualify some of them for government safety net programs, you’d think conservative lawmakers who complain about food and housing assistance would be scrambling to raise incomes slightly.
If elected officials won’t act to help Iowans, perhaps they could do it to improve their own image. They have an opportunity to work across party lines to accomplish something constituents want them to do, a concept that is becoming increasingly rare in the Iowa Legislature.