Reader's View: Higher pay for all workers in best interest of all Idahoans

October 27, 2013 

This year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Idaho’s average pay trails 47 other states. Our state leads the nation in minimum-wage jobs per capita, and only a third of jobs in our state paid a living wage last year. While some Idahoans enjoy a living wage, fair and safe working conditions, health benefits, and paid leave, overall Idaho’s workers are falling behind. Idaho is stuck in a low-wage, low-education spiral. Our education system doesn’t create enough skilled workers to attract high-paying employers, and low wages make it almost impossible for workers to get ahead, let alone pay for higher education.

Instead of widespread prosperity in our state for everyone who works hard, we’ve seen wages stagnate over the past three decades. The middle class has shrunk and the number of low-paying, part-time jobs has exploded. We see too many families with both parents working multiple jobs for poverty wages — people who now find the need to turn to social services. Moreover, we’ve watched elected officials boast about Idaho’s low wages, while voting to cut our investments in education. Idaho’s young people have seen what their future holds in our low-wage economy and are leaving the state at higher rates than ever.

Some mistakenly assert that raising the minimum wage will hurt job creation. What they fail to realize is that when working people have money to spend, the economy inevitably grows. A family that makes a living wage will go to the grocery store instead of the food bank. Some would tell working people to tighten their belts — after all, people used to get by on $1.15 an hour back in 1961. Those critics fail to realize that that wage equates to $8.98 of today’s buying power — well above Idaho’s current minimum wage. Washington has the highest minimum wage in the nation, an economy four times the size of Idaho’s, and fewer minimum-wage workers per capita.

Too many Idahoans live on wages that don’t meet their basic needs. The right to organize has been trampled by those who made empty promises of prosperity in imposing so-called “Right to Work” laws on Idahoans more than 25 years ago. In Idaho, “Right to Work” has resulted in the right to work for less money, trimmed benefits and fewer rights.

The bottom line is that Idaho must break out of its low-wage, low-education trap. If we’re going to grow our economy, we have to invest in education and pay a living wage to people who work hard and play by the rules. When hard-working families can make ends meet, support themselves without government subsidies and put money back into the economy, everyone in our state will prosper.

Rian Van Leuven is president of the Idaho AFL-CIO.

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