Politics & Policy

From Coasts to Countryside, There Can Be No Single Living Wage

photo by P. A. Jensen

“The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to fifteen dollars an hour over the next several years.” So says Bernie Sanders on his website, summarizing a common view within the Democratic Party. Sanders’s two-sentence quote reveals two separate points: The minimum wage needs to be a living wage, and the living wage should be fifteen dollars per hour. Even if everyone were to agree with the first point, then urban and rural voters with different costs of living would still disagree about what a living wage actually means, and whether a single federal living wage is even possible.

Wages were a central topic for Democrats during the last election cycle. The two major candidates in the presidential primary advocated a federal minimum wage at or near fifteen dollars per hour: Bernie Sanders quickly set his goal for a new wage at fifteen dollars, while Hillary Clinton favored a number somewhere above twelve. Regardless who won the primary, voters knew that a Democrat in the White House would try to increase the minimum wage, and by how much.

Just how much was carefully calculated to curry political favor. The proposed wages were heavily influenced by the organized movement for fifteen dollars per hour in the fast-food industry, also known as the “Fight for $15.” Sanders’s choice of fifteen dollars per hour coincided exactly with the Fight’s and allowed him to usurp their support; Clinton’s similar number was largely viewed as a move to the left in order to court supporters of the Fight (and of Sanders). Both candidates aimed to be perceived as the candidate of the living wage and of working people nationwide.

Nationwide, though, support for a high minimum wage was far from unanimous. Two polls from Rasmussen and Huffington/YouGov during the primary season showed that raising the minimum wage was overwhelmingly popular among Americans, but how much to raise it was an open question. In fact, fifteen dollars per hour was the highest dollar amount that received any significant support. According to these surveys, the Democratic candidates had committed to a relatively high wage that was not particularly popular with voters, at least nationwide. It was popular, however, within the Democratic base, which is centered in areas with high costs of living: in cities and on the coasts.

The Fight for $15’s messaging is rooted in the idea of a living wage, or a wage necessary to meet basic needs. If signs and t-shirts at rallies are to be believed, advocates perceive the living wage as a moral battle between labor and management: A living wage is what workers need, and to deny workers a living wage is therefore unconscionable. Importantly, the Fight for $15 was first successful in Seattle—one of America’s most expensive cities, and a city where a living wage may indeed equate to fifteen dollars per hour. Democratic support is rooted in urban areas like Seattle, meaning that a large segment of the Democratic base—perhaps the segment that was most likely to be vocal during primary elections—was at least accustomed to the idea of a fifteen-dollar wage, in no small part because of the Fight’s success. Politically speaking, because much of the base lived in urban areas, and because a living wage in those urban areas would need to be relatively high, choosing a high wage in a nationwide policy discussion may have seemed like an easy decision for a Democratic candidate.

Unfortunately for the candidates, a living wage means different things to different people. In particular, the cost of living—the figure that would determine the dollar amount of a living wage—varies widely across the country. This fact uncovers a problem with transforming a minimum wage into a living wage on a national scale: In a country with no single cost of living, there is no single living wage.

Outside of urban areas, fifteen dollars per hour often exceeds a living wage. In Seattle, working full-time at fifteen dollars per hour equates to less than forty percent of the median household income, but those same earnings would be over eighty percent of the median income in Mississippi, to say nothing of how those earnings would compare in predominantly rural areas of Mississippi. For candidates, advocating a living wage in general terms, as Donald Trump almost did, may have resonated with many working-class voters. However, choosing a single dollar amount—and a relatively high one—as a national living wage may have rung hollow in rural areas. Further, doing so also may have served as a stereotype threat, reinforcing the notion that Democrats were out of touch with rural voters’ needs.

Just how out of touch becomes obvious when considering the range of costs of living across the country. If a living wage is meant to cover basic costs of living, then states’ costs of living should roughly reflect the range of living wages nationwide. Even excluding notoriously expensive Hawaii, the United States sees a sixty-percent increase from the lowest cost of living (Mississippi) to the highest (California). Also, the disparities in costs of living show clear geographic trends that are at once unsurprising and striking: The top sixteen spots in the rankings are held by states in the Northeast and West Coast regions. All but two Southern states are in the bottom half of the rankings. The Midwest dominates the middle.

Of course, the minimum wage debate is more complex than just geography. Our current nationwide debate centers on the minimum wage’s effects on the economy, and others have raised questions about what size household a living wage should be expected to support. Both of these issues—two among many—are critical to national discussions regarding a minimum wage. However, even if we were to set aside points like these, the fact that costs of living vary so widely raises questions about the feasibility of a single living wage, even in principle. A lower wage set to match Mississippi’s cost of living would be far too low for an analogous family in California, or even the entire West Coast. A higher wage aimed at meeting basic standards in New York would greatly exceed those same standards in Oklahoma. Also, setting an intermediate wage, perhaps based on a national average, might create both of these problems simultaneously, only in different regions of the country: Families in Alaska would not have their needs met, while the same families would be exceeding those basic standards in Arkansas. America may have no single living wage, even in theory.

Similarly, America may not even have fifty living wages. Given states’ disparate costs of living, it is tempting to reassign the issue to the state level, where each state could set a wage that aligns with its own cost of living. However, just as our nation has economically diverse states, states have economically diverse counties.

Consider Minnesota, a “typical” state. Minnesota is near the middle of the nation’s cost-of-living rankings (twenty-third of fifty), and it also represents the middle of the country by several other metrics: Its population is near the median nationwide, it is in the Midwest, and it is considered politically “purple” (somewhere between red and blue, even if it shades blue in national elections). Also, its population is a mix of urban and rural, with just over half of Minnesotans living in a major metropolitan area (the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul).

Minnesota would seemingly be well served by an “intermediate” minimum wage. However, just as states have disparate costs of living in the U.S., counties have disparate costs of living in Minnesota. The seven counties that compose the Twin Cities metropolitan area are ranked near the top of Minnesota’s eighty-seven counties, and the cost of living in the highest-priced county is over fifty percent more expensive than in the lowest-priced. The state government in Minnesota would join the federal government in struggling to set a single dollar amount as a living wage. A wage that met basic needs in smaller towns near the Canadian border might cause families in the Twin Cities to struggle. And so on.

Somewhat surprisingly, such diversity in cost of living can be seen even at the county level. Consider Minnesota’s St. Louis County, which is the median—forty-fourth of eighty-seven—in terms of cost of living statewide. Half of St. Louis County’s residents live in Duluth, which is the county seat and the regional hub for northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. The other half of the residents are scattered across the county’s 6,000 square miles—an area larger than three different U.S. states. St. Louis County is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Cost-of-living data are hard to obtain for small towns in northern Minnesota, but costs certainly vary among a regional hub and towns with fewer than a thousand people over one hundred miles away. As a result, county commissioners would have the same problem as officials in the capitols in St. Paul and Washington: No single wage can meet the “minimum” needs of otherwise identical families in different communities. Disparities in costs of living seem to doom the very idea of a single living wage, even at a level of government as small as the county.

To be sure, some states are more homogenous than Minnesota, and many counties are more homogenous than St. Louis County, meaning that living wages could be—and indeed have been—legislated in some parts of the country. Regardless, the wide range in costs of living forecast an uphill battle for a single living wage in many states, to say nothing of the federal level. To appeal to voters in both urban and rural areas, policymakers might consider rethinking not the principle, but the premise: A national issue like the minimum wage might be best handled not at the national level, but at the local level. Government can handle big issues without being Big Government.

Across the country, and especially on the coasts, new minimum-wage ordinances are being enacted at the city level. Two features of these ordinances are unsurprising: The ordinances are typically in areas with high costs of living, where demand for higher wages is strongest, and their enacted wages are varied, indicating their tuning to local economies and costs of living, as well as political realities. Such ordinances may speak to a city-based model for wage advocates going forward. However, such a model demands that each city with a cost of living above a baseline level mobilizes to enact a higher wage. Prospects for such mobilization are varied, to say the least. To supplement fights at the city level, national and state politicians who are committed to the idea of a living wage could focus on two strategies: one of them top-down, and the other bottom-up.

From the top down, state politicians could legislate wages at the county level: Instead of setting one statewide wage, officials could set wages in each county based on the county’s cost of living. This strategy would follow the lead set by Oregon—an expensive state with an expensive metropolitan area—which recently enacted a tiered wage structure based on, at root, whether the wages are earned in Portland. A county-based model derived from actual costs of living might better match the rhetoric of a true living wage compared to state or federal models—even tiered state or federal models—which often weigh average wages in some form.

As discussed earlier, and as many conservatives routinely point out, no plan at any level of government could perfectly tune a single minimum wage to the full spectrum of living wages. However, minimum wages would be better tuned to living wages in a county-based plan compared to a state-based plan. For example, the relatively small differences between urban costs of living and the average costs of living countywide could be made up by enacting citywide wages that exceed the countywide minimum. Of course, cities are doing exactly this in our state-based system, but a county-based system would require increases on a smaller scale, which would appeal to progressives.

Also, while a county-based, bottom-up strategy accomplishes the goals of the left by providing something resembling a living wage, that same strategy also achieves a main goal of the right: It puts the market at the center of the wage debate. A county-by-county tuning of wages to costs of living would basically correlate wages to the pricing of goods and services, at least broadly. Such a plan would bring flexibility to our wage debate, as the wages would be realigned with cost-of-living indexes periodically, and could go up or down, or at least up at different rates. Further, such a plan might make government-mandated wages superfluous, as minimum wages based on costs of living might strongly resemble local prevailing wages.

The freedom to set a wage at the local level could itself be the focus of a bottom-up strategy at both the state and national levels. Just as some cities enact their own minimum wages, others are barred by state legislatures from doing the same. For example, the other St. Louis—the city in Missouri, not the county in Minnesota—recently was forced by the state legislature to decrease its minimum wage to match the statewide level. Conservative politicians who feel pressure to increase wages could campaign on wages as an issue of local control. By embracing the economic diversity in the form of costs of living, and by ensuring local levels of government the right to raise wages as they saw fit, up-ticket politicians could move away from a narrative of Big Government, even if they also pursued the top-down strategy outlined above. Conservative policymakers who campaigned on local control of wages might regain the ears of urban voters who embrace the rhetoric of living wages generally. Similarly, progressive policymakers who preached local control might attract attention of rural voters who had been put off by blanket policy proposals like fifteen dollars per hour.

The living-wage debate serves as a microcosm for the rift between urban and rural voters in this country. Democrats’ concentrated support in expensive areas of the country hints at an assumed truth among many supporters of the left: that a wage below a relatively high dollar amount is insufficient to thrive economically in this country. Instead, that wage may be insufficient to thrive only in a large city, or near the ocean, or both. Regardless how much money they earn, voters in urban areas and on the coasts share the experience of a high cost of living, and in the past this common experience may have united these voters around the economic planks in the Democratic platform. However, the uniformity of the Democratic base also may have served as a blind spot for politicians: Several politicians on the left claimed to speak for working-class voters during the last election, only to be blind-sided by those very voters—many from rural areas in the Midwest. It turns out that in many places in America, the current minimum wage is not “starvation pay,” as Sanders says.

From the vantage point of liberals, the counterintuitive idea of focusing national attention on counties and cities might be one step toward a more inclusive—and competitive—progressive base. For conservatives, as Democrats seemingly double down on identity politics during the Trump administration, wouldn’t it be ironic if Republicans were the ones to embrace diversity? After all, the rural-urban spectrum is one type of diversity with perhaps the most inevitable and obvious economic consequences.

As our debate about wages continues, policymakers might consider taking voters on a metaphorical trip from the coasts to the countryside. That shift in focus would reinforce that just as our nation’s geographical landscape changes, so does its economic landscape.

That shift from the capitol to the counties might reveal, perhaps poetically, that the middle ground in our national wage debate might come from  the middle of the country.



P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.




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