Opinion | January is poverty awareness month and Iowa has some work to do

The $7.25 minimum wage is long overdue and not enough money for Iowans to provide for their basic needs. It’s time Iowa adjusted to a living wage.


Grace Smith

Photo illustration by Grace Smith

Yassie Buchanan, Opinions Columnist

January is Poverty Awareness Month. As the month comes to an end, it is clear looking at Iowa’s minimum wage that we have some work to do to continue addressing the issue.

Poverty is a long-standing problem everywhere, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people and families have been facing increased struggles. Iowa needs to raise the minimum wage and address the disparities communities of color face.

The minimum wage in Iowa is $7.25 an hour. However, the living wage for an adult with no children is almost double, at $13.62 an hour. The poverty wage for an adult with no children is just below the minimum at $6.13 an hour. For an adult with one child, the poverty wage is $8.29 an hour.

Not surprisingly, Iowa families cannot live off $7.25 an hour and should not be asked to work a job that will not cover their basic needs.  College students who are funding their own education and living expenses also could not live off Iowa’s minimum wage.

Even more concerning is the higher rates of poverty among minority communities. Iowans of color face poverty at much higher rates than white Iowans. The most recent Census Bureau data shows 27.3 percent of African Americans and 31.7 Native Americans experienced poverty in Iowa.

Currently, African Americans make up just over 4 percent of Iowa’s population and Native Americans account for under one percent of the population. It is alarming that such a large number within those small groups live in poverty.

Considering the pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities, it has become even more pressing to address poverty and the minimum wage.

The COVID-19 pandemic in many ways has only exacerbated the income hardships many people face. A report showed over a seven-day period in fall 2021 that one in eight U.S. adults with children did not have enough food. Black and Latino adults were over two times more likely to face food insecurity.

The meat packing and processing industry is a perfect example of how we need to look at wages and poverty through the lens of a living wage rather than being above the poverty line.

In the country, a significant number of the people operating meatpacking plants are from immigrant and minority communities. Around 38 percent of the workers in the meat-processing industry are immigrants with the top language spoken being Spanish.

Seeing as Iowa is the state with the second-largest amount of meat-processing workers in the country, many of those people come from minority and immigrant backgrounds because the job pays nearly double the minimum wage and does not require English.

Even with the increase in income, within the top five meat-packing states, the median yearly salary is $35,000. According to MIT’s living wage calculator for Iowa, this yearly salary is just enough to cover the typical expense of an adult with no children. Although this job is a significant step up from the minimum wage, it is still not enough for many households.

Even when a $15 wage puts workers with no children above the poverty wage, it is still not a living wage for adults with children.

We should not equate being above the poverty line with earning a living wage. Jobs in the meatpacking industry are essential in feeding the country. As we have learned through the pandemic, grocery store jobs are essential as well. Workers in these industries need wages that will cover their living expenses, regardless of whether they have children or not.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.