Beware of comprehensive legislation


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“Comprehensive” is the dirtiest word in legislative language.

We’ve had comprehensive health care reform, which is a success mainly by the measurement of increased government spending. There’s talk of comprehensive immigration reform, which would likely be an overkill solution. And some counties in the state are using the comprehensive approach to increase the minimum wage through automatic, annual increases that are usually too steep and objectionable to pass.

Comprehensive is code for, “Let’s really screw this up.” Instead of focusing on a single, fixable issue, comprehensive legislation keeps adding to the bill until it either becomes unpassable or it passes, but creates additional problems.

The biggest, single issue that needed fixing in the health insurance world was to eliminate underwriting for pre-existing conditions. According to The Statistics Portal, in 2014 about 84 percent of our population received health insurance through either Medicare—insurance for the elderly, Medicaid—insurance for the poor, or through group workplace plans. About six percent purchased health care off the individual market. The remaining 10 percent were uninsured. Many of the uninsured likely had a pre-existing health condition and were denied insurance. This is the one group we needed to help. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, provided that help, but the 2,700 page bill created more problems by doing so.

Before Obamacare, those who purchased health care off the individual market were self-sufficient and paid for their own health insurance—without the help of taxpayer subsidies. Because premiums are higher in Obamacare, insurance has become unaffordable to this group that had previously paid their own way. More than 85 percent of Obamacare enrollees receive some type of financial assistance. That means taxpayers are helping to support not only those who were being underwritten, but now also many who were previously self-sufficient.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a talking point on the campaign trail. The one problem that needs fixing with immigration in the country is that our laws are not being enforced. There’s been a reason for that. Employers are benefiting from cheap labor provided by undocumented workers, and consumers are benefiting by purchasing the cheap goods they’re producing. In some ways, we’ve all been part of the problem.

But we don’t need comprehensive immigration reform. Simply enforce the laws we already have, particularly for those who illegally migrate to our country and then commit felonies. After we’ve neglected our laws for decades, it may be too late—logistically and morally—to deport millions of productive human beings who have assimilated to our nation’s core values. But strong leadership can make it clear to the world that arriving in the United States will now be through legal methods only. Others will be deported.

Then there’s the minimum wage conundrum. Because our state legislators failed to solve the problem, some counties in Iowa have grappled with the issue. Comprehensive ideas about multiple, steep increases through successive years are making it hard for local leaders to find consensus. For some, the only acceptable solution is a guaranteed path to $15.00 per hour. Meanwhile, there are workers languishing at $7.25 an hour who could really benefit from even a modest increase right now.

Don’t elected officials work every year? Can’t a reasonable increase to $9.00 per hour be made now and then discuss a future increase in—the future? Work now and work later. That’s what most people do. Elected officials can do the same.

Politicians like to use the comprehensive sound bite, suggesting that it’s the only way to solve a problem. But the effect is the opposite. Either nothing gets done, or there’s a solution overkill that causes more problems than it solves.

We can accomplish more, without going comprehensive.

Minimum wage doesn’t provide for the bare minimum

There is disagreement on where minimum wage should be set, but when full-time, minimum wage workers in Iowa fall below the poverty threshold—it cannot stay at $7.25.

Image by Shutterstock.

Image by Shutterstock.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 poverty threshold is $16,317 for a two-person household. That’s $7.84 an hour. Also, the Iowa Policy Project estimates annual food, rent, utilities, clothing and household expenses for a two-person household to be $16,560 annually. That’s $7.96 an hour.

Full-time, minimum wage workers are failing to secure the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter. In “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich cites one poll in which 94 percent of Americans believe that, “people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.”

Americans possess a sense of justice. We are also a generous people. There are dozens of government support programs for the working poor, supported by taxpayers. Effort, combined with generosity, can solve poverty.

One income should support a two-person household. There are some who are not capable of working—children, the elderly, and disabled individuals. Despite our fierce independence in this country, we are not so individualistic that it becomes normal to think in terms of only taking care of ourselves. The hopeful norm is the belief that one person working a full-time, minimum wage job can support one additional person in the household, not capable of working, with those wages.

Iowa legislators introduced a bill that would have raised minimum wage to $8.00 this year and $8.75 next year. The measure died. An hourly wage of $8.00 will simply meet the poverty threshold for a two-person household. Another 75 cents an hour will put an additional 30 bucks each week in the pocket of a full-time worker.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states and D.C. have minimum wages above the federal requirement of $7.25. Of those already higher than the federal requirement, 15 have passed legislation to increase its state minimum wage again and will take effect within the next year or two. While it could be argued that some states are increasing minimum wages too much and too fast without full consideration of unintended consequences—particularly for small business owners—the Iowa bill was reasonable. Knowing that it takes at least $8.00 an hour to purchase the bare minimum of food, clothing and shelter, it’s reasonable to move to that amount as a state minimum. Our neighbors—Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota—all have minimum wages higher than Iowa. Increasing state minimum wage is trending upward.

The National Federation of Independent Business warns that small businesses are the ones who will suffer the most, and if they suffer—the jobs will go with them. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses make up 99 percent of U.S. firms and are responsible for 64 percent of new, private-sector jobs. These small businesses also have a 50 percent failure rate within the first five years, but some failures have nothing to do with labor costs.

History has proven that many small businesses can adjust to the challenge of modest increases in the minimum wage. The time has come to do it again. Human beings who are doing their part and working full-time should not be falling below the poverty threshold. It’s difficult to call that working arrangement a job.

Iowans can help by supporting small businesses in their communities. The consumer has power. And responsibility.

Some may be hard pressed to think of even one person they personally know who is making minimum wage or one business that pays minimum wage. Workers are in demand, and often companies have no choice but to pay higher wages. Free market advocates will say the problem has already been worked out.

If it’s a non-issue, there should be no opposition.

Our legislators failed, and the failure was partisan with Democrats supporting the increase and Republicans opposing it. Partisan battles will and should happen when extreme, liberal or conservative factions are at work. But it’s not extreme to increase the minimum wage to $8.00 an hour. It’s reasonable.

This problem isn’t going away. If more states make the choice to fix it themselves, perhaps the federal government will not feel the need to enforce a one-size-fits-all mandate. What works in the District of Columbia and the East Coast may not be what’s best for Iowa.

When the issue of minimum wage is brought up again, let’s hope our elected leaders—despite their party affiliation—will find a way to do what’s reasonable.

Because the current minimum wage doesn’t cover the bare minimum.