Notes From a Campus/Company Town

Embarrassed and Horrified

The following Op-Ed submission (in italics below) was rejected – well, ignored (with no response to my repeated polite queries about its fate) – by the Iowa City Press Citizen, (known to a local anarchist friend of mine as “The Oppressed Citizen”) the local Gannett-owned newspaper in the University of Iowa company town of Iowa City, located in Johnson County, and home to the University of Iowa and the standardized-testing behemoths ACT and Pearson:

The Proposed New County Minimum Wage v. The Real Cost of Getting By

By Paul Street

Upon hearing that the Johnson County Board of Supervisors recently voted to begin a process of approving Iowa first’s countywide minimum wage ordinance and thereby raising the local minimum wage up from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2017, I didn’t know whether to respond with embarrassment or horror. Embarrassment: for the liberal board members who think they’re enacting some kind of grand progressive victory for working people. Horror: at right-wingers who think the proposed increase is too generous.

Serious debates over what the minimum wage should be in various U.S. locales and jurisdictions should start with serious information on what it actually costs to live in the different places where Americans live. What does it cost just to get by in the U.S. today? It depends on where you reside, to no small extent. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have done some remarkable work on this topic. They have calculated the varying minimum no-frills “income required to afford an adequate standard of living” for six family types living in 615 specific U.S. communities, taking into account the varying costs in each of community of seven basic expenditures: housing, food, transportation, child care, health care (premiums plus out of pocket expenses), “other necessities” (clothing, personal care, household supplies, reading materials, school supplies, telephone), and taxes.

According to the EPI Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa (where I currently reside) is $48,767. That’s more than three times the federal government’s incredibly inadequate and geographically undifferentiated official U.S, poverty level for a two- person household. It sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($851), food ($399), child care ($673), transportation ($464), health care ($421), other necessities ($604), and taxes ($652), for a total monthly outlay of $4,064 Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $79,489 (compared to $47,171 in Bakersfield, California), more than four times higher than the federal poverty measure. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,776. In rural Iowa its $42,248. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City, Iowa, and the cost is $67,710 – nearly three times the federal poverty level for a four-person household.

The EPI’s figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a pro-business “conservative” express shock at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically high” as $15 an hour. Even such a dramatically increased minimum wage translates into just $30,000 a year for a worker fortunate enough to stay employed full time. Put two parents with two children successfully in the job market full time at even $15 an hour and you’d still come up $7,710 short in Iowa City.

Considering all this, I can be forgiven, perhaps, for not showering praise on the Johnson County Supervisors for agreeing (under pressure from local labor activists) to move forward on a proposal that would raise the county’s federally mandated minimum wage from $7.25 (an even bigger joke than the federal poverty level) to $10.10 an hour by 2017.

It’s good to see local city councils and now even a (our) county board experiment with going beyond the national minimum. But, please, just $10 an hour: $20,000 a year, assuming full-time year round work (which many workers cannot attain) – and this just by 2017? Forget for a moment that many employers in the area are already at or above that wage mark (I know this very well from direct experience).  That aside, the EPI’s carefully calculated basic family budget even just for one parent and one kid in Iowa City (Johnson County’s biggest municipality) is more than 240 % of what someone can make at $10 an hour.

The so-called People’s Republic of Johnson County is currently “feeling the Bern” (the passion for the nominally socialist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) more intensely perhaps than any county in America. Could its county board please join have the basic decency to at least join the Fight for Fifteen?

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Harreld’s Higher Ed Chicken(s)

I only half expected the above submission to appear in The [Op]Press[ed] Citizen. The likelihood of publication is even smaller now that local news and discussion has been rocked by a remarkable development: the Big Business-dominated University of Iowa (UI) Board of Regent’s “surprise” fast-track hire of J. Bruce Harreld as UI’s new president. Harreld is a former top “turnaround” executive at Kraft Foods, Boston Chicken, and IBM. Last Friday, the Press Citizen printed a giant picture of Harreld underneath huge-type block letters announcing his hire. “While Harreld does not have experience as a university administrator,” the Press Citizen exults, “he’s held leadership roles at Fortune 500 and other companies.” How perfect: an explicitly corporate manager with no serious academic background to head a leading corporate-neoliberal university.

The university/company town of Iowa City had better get ready for some belt-tightening and increased work-loads for those left standing. The heat is about to increase on the academic fryer. “Turnaround” means workforce, wage, and salary reduction. That’s what Harreld did at Kraft, Boston Chicken, and IBM and that’s certainly the role he can reasonably be expected in his new position atop a major outpost of the “higher”-educational-military-industrial complex.

At $590,000 per year, Harreld’s wage translates to $295 an hour, assuming a 40-hour work week and full-time work with a two week vacation. Harreld has pledged to work with a “coach” who will help him understand the academic culture he has been hired to bring yet more completely in line with dominant oppression structures and ideologies.

Speaking of coaches, Herreld’s “earnings” will still fall way behind those of his football coach Kirk Ferentz, who was payed $3 million plus per year the last time I checked. That’s impressive remuneration for a gridiron coordinator who regularly cooks up 7-5 and 6-6 seasons along with semi-annual trips to the odiferous Outback Steakhouse Bowl.

I’m not sure there’s a single openly radical professor left at the University of Iowa. There will be a brief bit of faculty grousing (think chickens clucking a bit more loudly than usual) about their new CEO but the university’s liberal professoriat will for the most part acquiesce to their new and more explicitly corporate master in the nation’s No.2 Party School (where undergraduate drinking is exceeded only by the University of Illinois). Maybe some of the academics the new president turns around and out of the professorial poultry pen at the new “Harreld’s Chicken” university would like to join me (a former long-term adjunct history instructor) in the local manufacturing sector, where (please note, Johnson County Board of Supervisors) starting wages are already above $10 an hour.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).