Idaho’s cost of living doesn’t make up for its wages  

Lately I’ve been asking people to talk about political issues that concern them.

Wages and housing costs get a lot of mentions.

Idahoans tend to think of our cost of living as low compared to other states. Yet, I’ve talked to newcomers from California who were surprised that our food costs here weren’t  lower. Others found our property taxes to be an unwelcome surprise. (California bases property taxes on the purchase price; people who’ve lived in a home for 20 or 30 years pay relatively little.) 

Idahoans, however, tend to complain about house prices. In March 2019 Zillow Research Data reported that the price of Idaho homes had increased over 17% during the previous year. The national average was 7%.

Idaho’s cost of living isn’t low.   

The World Population Review for 2020 ranks 18 states as cheaper to live in than Idaho. It figures Idaho’s cost of living as 92.3% of the national average. That study is based on what people are actually spending. Housing costs are low–87.1%–because homes were cheap not long ago. A 3-bedroom home in Caldwell worth $115,000 in 2006 dropped to $55,000 in value during the Great Recession.    

Sperling’s Best Places, a ranking for those who’re considering moving, estimates the cost of setting up a new household. It claims Idaho housing costs are 114% of the national average. That home worth $115,000 in 2006 now has an estimated cost of $220,000. With Boise’s higher prices averaged in, Sperling cites a median value for an Idaho home at $263,900.

Sperling’s figures place Idaho’s cost of living at 97.7% of the national average. 

Idaho’s median household income would need to be $57,167 to be 92.7% of the national median and $60,512 to be 97.7%. It is actually $55,583.  

So Idaho’s cost of living is high in comparison to incomes here–but it has been worse.  

In 2015 the Idaho Department of Labor published a study entitled “Idaho Wages–An Historical Perspective.”  The second paragraph ends this way: “Even with a cost-of-living adjusted, Idaho wages ranked last in the country in 2012.” 

In the early 1980s, Idaho’s median wage ranked 35th in the nation; it sank to 47th by 1990, rose to 40th by 2000–and then declined steadily. Fortunately, 2012 was the low point.  By 2018 we had risen to 43rd place.  

Unfortunately, studies which might explain these ups and downs don’t exist. Have the 20-years of tax cuts succeeded in their purpose? Has right-to-work lowered wages and/or led to a loss of skilled workers? What seems to improve the success rate of small businesses?  

For decades we’ve used promises of a cheap labor force and a low cost of living  to attract business growth. As recently as 2011, legislators were purposely driving qualified teachers out of our state. 

Now we’re putting real efforts into encouraging young people to become better trained and educated without getting the results we need. Taxpayer money is trying to revive apprenticeship programs that unions finance elsewhere. But Western Idaho College couldn’t get funding for a building to make offering more technology programs possible.  And no way are we about to train someone for openings like Micron’s recent call for an ‘emerging memory process integration engineer.’

Moreover, we can only guess at the effect of our mixed reception for minority and LGBT persons on corporate decisions.  

Idaho has too many legislators who talk up our low cost of living, make mountains out of wedge issues that affect few lives, and parrot, “Tax cut, good.”  

We need more pragmatists tackling real problems.      

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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