The Cost of Living in Iowa
When Iowa Wages Fall Short, How Do Policy Choices Fill the Gap?

By Peter S. Fisher and Natalie Veldhouse

Graph with key COL pointsWhat does it take to get by these days? This seventh edition of The Cost of Living in Iowa answers this question, and connects the answer to public policy choices that are in the hands of state and federal lawmakers. As in 2014, 2016 and 2018, we are publishing the report in installments.

The first installment focuses on what Iowans must earn — a living wage, in any county, for 10 family types — to meet a family-supporting, basic-needs household budget. The hourly wage estimate is one that would provide after-tax income sufficient to meet basic needs for a full-time worker. For the first time, both the budgets and the living wage information are available for all 99 counties.

The report then turns to the analysis of how many Iowa working households earn enough to actually meet a basic-needs budget (about 1 in 5 overall). This varies by family type — fully 3 in 5 single-parent workng families fall short of basic needs on their earnings. These estimates had been provided in a separate report in previous years.

A recurring theme that emerges from this Cost of Living report: The federal poverty guidelines fall woefully short in measuring poverty, if the goal is to show what income is presumed to be enough to help a family get by. Depending on the family type, the basic-needs, self-sufficiency household budget needs to be two to three times higher than what the poverty guidelines claim.

Later this fall we will release Part 2 to show how work-support programs work — or do not work — for families to make those ends meet. This will include illustrations of the cliff effects in certain programs, particularly child care assistance, and the way in which the whole range of work supports help provide a pathway to self-sufficiency for working Iowa families.

For Many Iowa Families, It Takes More than the Median Wage Just to Get By

COL Figure 2

Iowans pay differing amounts for the basic living essentials depending on where they live. A family living in Linn County and a family living in Clay County will face different housing costs, commuting times and health insurance premiums; child care costs will differ as well. Part 1 of this report details how much families throughout the state must earn in order to meet their basic needs and underscores the importance of public work support programs for many Iowans, who despite their work efforts, are not able to pay for the most basic living expenses.

Below, see how costs compare for families in your county and neighboring counties; click on any county for the data.

map Union Shelby Woodbury Ringgold Van Buren Wapello Scott Sioux Sac Tama Webster Warren Washington Wayne Wright Worth Winnebago Winneshiek Muscatine Mahaska Poweshiek Jasper Marion Monroe Lucas Page Montgomery Pottawattamie Mills Monona Marshall Story Humboldt Pocahontas Palo Alto Plymouth Mitchell Hamilton Hardin Grundy Guthrie Franklin Madison Keokuk Louisa Iowa Lee Henry Fremont Ida Jones Linn Howard Kossuth Hancock Johnson Jackson Harrison Greene Jefferson Decatur Davis Emmet Floyd Delaware Dubuque Fayette Dallas Dickinson Des Moines Butler Buena Vista Boone Bremer Clayton Chickasaw Cerro Gordo Cass Crawford Calhoun Clay Cherokee Clarke Carroll Buchanan Black Hawk Benton Clinton Cedar Audubon appanoose Adair Adams Osceola Allamakee Lyon Taylor Polk O’Brien

Part 1 — Basic family budgets: What it takes to get by, and how many can
Part 1 of this report details how much working families must earn in order to meet their basic needs and underscores the importance of public work support programs for many Iowans, who despite their work efforts, are not able to pay for the most basic living expenses.
Full report Sept. 24, 2019
Full report, 21-page PDF (includes appendix)
Backgrounder, 2-page PDF
News release

Part 2 — Strengthening Pathways to the Middle Class: The Role of Work Supports
Iowa can design child care assistance and other policies to “make work pay” for low-income working families. “Work support” policies help low-wage working families survive, keep their children out of poverty, and provide a stepping stone to a better education and a better job. This report shows how to strengthen pathways to the middle class — an important public policy issue when nearly 120,000 Iowa working households do not earn enough to provide for a basic standard of living. For single parents, the challenge is greater than for married parents, and for Iowans of color, the challenge is far greater than for white families.
Full report, 17-page PDF Jan. 8, 2020
Backgrounder, 2 pages
News release