Printed on: December 27, 2012

Idaho is last in nation in overall earnings, with most jobs not able to support a single-breadwinner family

By Holly Beech
Idaho Press-Tribune

About a third of Idaho's jobs in 2011 paid enough to support a family of four, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

With the combination of pay cuts, reductions in hours, layoffs and an economy shifting toward lower-paying jobs, Idaho lost $1.5 billion in wages during the recession, Labor Department spokesman Bob Fick said.

The department estimated that a family of four needed $39,000 a year to support itself, but the median annual wage in Idaho, including part-time jobs, barely is above $23,000.

That's lower than any other state.

One reason for Idaho's low wages is the evolving economy, Fick said.

Jobs that pay the least -- those in the service sector, such as a sales associate or a home health aide -- are experiencing a more robust recovery than the jobs in the production sector, such as mining, logging, farming, construction and manufacturing.

"The production side of the economy is where the money is," Fick said.

Production jobs, on average, pay $10,000 more a year than service jobs. Since 1990, Idaho gained only 10,000 production jobs while the service sector grew by 210,000 jobs.

"You look at manufacturing in general in Idaho, and the only thing that's really held its own is food processing," Fick said.

The number of construction jobs lingers around 31,000, compared with 56,000 in 2007.

"It'll be another 20 years before we get back to where we were before the recession ... as far as construction goes," Fick said.

Two-income

households

Many Idaho families live off two incomes.

The median Idaho household income of $48,348 is ranked 40th in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We have one of the highest multiple job holder rates in the nation, where people work more than one job," Fick said.

In some situations, living off two incomes just isn't an option. It's hard enough to find one job, Fick said.

And what about a woman with two kids and no child support?

"That's another tough situation when you have these low-wage jobs and the economy is evolving away from the higher wages to the lower wages," he said.

With the economic downturn, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare experienced a spike in requested services.

In June 2011, 20 percent of Idaho's population -- with the highest rate in Canyon County's region -- received help in the form of Medicaid, food stamps, child care and cash assistance.

From 2009 to 2011, the number of Idahoans receiving those benefits grew by 31 percent.

"I think a lot of parents who may have lost a job and in turn lost health coverage for their family turned to Medicaid," Idaho Health and Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan said. "... It was mostly children who came on."

Also, the food stamp caseload shot up in late 2007, he said, and didn't decline until this January.

Of the 228,000 food stamp recipients in Idaho, 91,000 are working-age adults. Within that group, 41,000 have jobs or are between jobs but still need assistance, Shanahan said.

"We help them find jobs and there (are) different work activities that we do with them, but if they do find jobs and they still qualify, that would be a concern because we want them to be self-reliant," he said. "... If you make minimum wage, you make about $15,000 a year. One person can live on that, but if you have a single parent with a child, that's probably not going to work."

Although the Idaho Labor Department says a family of four needs about $39,000 a year to be self-sufficient, that family would only qualify for food stamps if its household income was less than $30,000 year.

Now what?

When trying to attract high-paying jobs, the state's main focus should be its core responsibilities -- education and health care -- rather than incentive programs, said Mike Ferguson, Idaho's former chief economist and the founder of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Over the years, Idaho has embraced more incentive programs to spur economic development, Ferguson said, but has failed to give school districts the support they need.

"We've been engaged in cutting taxes since about 2000," he said. "That, in turn, has led to the cuts that we've seen in education, which ultimately undermine our opportunities for economic success."

At a time when the global marketplace is becoming more and more complex, having a well-educated workforce is essential, Ferguson said, but in Idaho, school districts barely can make ends meet.

"Basically, the public education system has had its resources reduced to levels that are reaching crisis proportions," he said.

The best economic development strategy, he said, is to support education and health care as efficiently as possible.

"Companies by and large aren't stupid," Ferguson said. "They'll see that it's a good place to locate and do business."

Median annual earnings by state

Idaho comes in last place for overall earnings.

Full- and part-time jobs: $23,192. Rank: 51/51.

Male, full-time earnings: $41,528. Rank: 43/51.

Female, full-time earnings: $31,238. Rank: 47/51.

Idaho job profile

In 1990:

307,000 service sector jobs. Average wage: $18,200.

78,000 production jobs. Average wage: $23,800.

In 2011:

517,000 service sector jobs. Average wage: $33,800.

88,000 production jobs. Average wage: $43,800.

In the recession:

21,000 service jobs lost; 8,000 regained since June 2010.

38,000 production jobs lost; 1,000 regained since June 2010.

$1.5 billion: Amount of wages lost in the recession.

34 percent -- or 204,000 -- of Idaho's 592,000 jobs could support a family of four on one income.