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Gary Susich, who spent three years homeless, believes Iowans “don’t need a minimum wage; they need a living wage.”

“The wage of $7.25 an hour is a joke,” said Susich, who still considers the streets of Davenport home. “Even at 40 hours a week, if you’re making $7.25 an hour, you’re still in poverty. They keep saying how unemployment is going down, but some people here are working two to three jobs and are still struggling.”

Despite now having a secure place to rest his head at night, Susich barely affords anything other than rent and utility bills. And a new study from the United Ways of Iowa shows Susich’s story is all too common across the state.

The report released Tuesday highlights what Executive Director Deann Cook calls the state’s “unseen population in the middle,” or those working low-paying jobs and struggling to afford the basic necessities. The organization’s second ALICE report shows 37 percent of Iowa households struggle to afford the basic costs of living, compared to 31 percent in 2010. That’s a 27 percent increase.

In Scott County, 38 percent of households live in poverty or qualify as ALICE, which stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. In the city of Davenport, 47 percent, or 39,481 households, cannot afford basic needs, according to the report.

“This is a new way for us to look at this because the Federal Poverty Level underestimates the number of people that are struggling,” Cook said. “There’s a myth that if you’re working, you’re fine. That’s not true. There’s a whole middle ground of people working and earning and paying taxes, but not making enough to meet basic needs. This report strikes that myth that they aren’t working.”

Unable to get out of that hole

Heather Neynes said Christmas doesn’t come in December. For her and her daughter, it comes in the spring, when she receives her income tax return.

“I won’t put my Christmas tree up in December. It’ll go up in February and won’t go down until taxes are done,” she said. “I swear to God.”

Like the rest of the year, Neynes said Christmas is a choice between rent and new clothes; between utility bills and filling the gas tank; between soap and food. After working at Burger King for 15 years, she’s now a shift lead and manages several locations. And while she usually works overtime, totaling around 65 hours a week, she’s still barely scraping by on $10 per hour.

“You get like $800 a paycheck, but after all the bills are paid, you have $50 or $60 left,” she said. “My gas light is on right now and I have no idea when my car is going to stop working. And I work every day until Friday. I have $1 in my bank account and I’m not going negative to get the overdraw fee.”

The United Way report shows 66 percent of Iowa’s jobs pay less than $20 per hour, and 57 percent pay less than $15 per hour.

It outlines what residents need to meet a monthly survival budget, which doesn’t include savings or emergency costs. In Scott County, it includes modest monthly housing costs of $449 for a single adult and $712 for a four-member family.

Researchers estimate, in Scott County, the average single resident working full-time needs to earn at least $9.73 per hour, and a four-person family must earn $29.38 per hour, to meet the household survival budget.

“Housing, health care, childcare, food, transportation and the bare minimum of a cellphone plan: These are the things you need to be able to live and work in the modern economy in Iowa. And those costs have increased,” lead researcher Stephanie Hoopes said. “From 2010 to 2016, those costs have increased by 26 percent for a single adult, and 41 percent for a family of four — much faster than the rate of inflation during that period which was 9 percent.”

For parents, childcare takes the biggest bite out of monthly budgets. The report estimates a minimum of $1,087 would be spent each month for a family with one infant and one preschooler.

Neynes, who has a 9-year-old daughter, shares an apartment with a coworker, Angela Anderson, who has a daughter of the same age. Both have lived in their cars and shelters before finding low-income housing. Neynes considers herself relatively lucky, paying around $600 a month in rent, but the two moms have switched their schedules to cover childcare.

“We can’t afford state-paid babysitters,” said Anderson, who earns $7.50 per hour. “We work opposite shifts so we can watch each other’s kids. I wouldn’t have a place to stay if it wasn’t for her (Neynes).”

Motherhood keeps the women going, Neynes said, as well as the hope that their daughters may have easier lives than they ever did. But frustration grows in their voices as they plea for higher wages and more affordable housing.

“We’re in poverty, literally,” Neynes said.

“And there ain’t nothing we can do about it,” Anderson said.

No 'silver bullet'

For Susich, it took reaching the age of 62, receiving pension and Social Security benefits to leave homelessness and afford some basic needs.

“But it’s not much,” he said. “I know people who get $600 to $800 a month. I’ve been a little more fortunate. But those people struggle week-to-week, to pay rent, to buy food, to get on disability.”

Hoopes said the United Ways report is especially startling because of the growing older population, which includes residents, like Susich, who rely on Social Security and Medicare. She said seniors are projected to make up around 21 percent of the population by 2030, and many of them don’t have the means of saving for retirement.

“The federal safety net and Social Security is not enough to keep them in a financially stable place,” Cook said. “They’re not the poorest of the poor, but seniors still struggle every single month with the income they have.”

While the number of households unable to meet basic needs is only expected to grow, Cook said there is no “silver bullet” or single answer. She said United Ways across Iowa focus on education to help businesses, legislators and others understand the challenges of low-income residents.  

Interviewed Davenport residents begged for a higher minimum wage, a larger option of affordable housing units and welfare reform. 

Cook said the ALICE threshold includes Iowans of all ages, races and colors.

“This report is kind of a myth buster,” she said. “It’s not who you might think. Families with two parents and two kids are in this demographic. Our United Ways know these 457,000 households in Iowa exist and who are struggling. This report gives the numbers a face. It’s everyone.”

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