The Cost of Living in Iowa — 2011 Edition
By Lily French, Peter Fisher and Noga O'Connor

May 31, 2012
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View Appendix 1 methodology
View Appendix 2 county and regional information
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Iowans pay differing amounts for the basic living essentials depending on where they live. A family living in Linn County and a family living in Clay County will face different housing costs, commuting times and health insurance premiums; child care costs will differ as well. This report details how much families throughout the state must earn in order to meet their basic needs and underscores the importance of public work support programs for many Iowans, who despite their work efforts, are not able to pay for the most basic living expenses. This report also details, for the first time, how many working Iowa families are falling below a minimum cost of living threshold.

See how costs compare for families in your county and neighboring counties; click on any county for the data.

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The basic-needs budgets constructed for this report represent a very frugal living standard; using 2011 costs, we have intentionally constructed budgets based on what is needed to “survive” rather than “thrive.” This includes allowances for rent, utilities, food prepared at home, child care, health care, transportation, clothing and other household necessities. The budgets show the after-tax income an Iowa family would require to meet basic needs without the benefit of public assistance or work supports; this report focuses on non-senior Iowa households with a working adult.[1]
Key assumptions box
Working Iowans Struggling to Pay for Basic Living Expenses

Iowans work hard to support their families. Iowa ranks first in the nation in the percent of children under 6 years of age with all parents in the labor force (75.6 percent).[2] Despite their work efforts, families’ earnings are not keeping up with rising costs. Using a conservative cost of living threshold, we can more accurately estimate the number of Iowa families struggling to make ends meet than was previously possible with federal poverty measurements. Expanding upon previous Cost of Living in Iowa studies,[3] we have constructed basic budgets for 26 different family types — single persons, couples and single parents, with varying numbers of children under 19 living at home, and with either one or two workers in the case of married couples — accounting for nearly all non-senior Iowa households with a working adult.[4]

Table 1: Over 1 in 5 Iowa Families Have Incomes Below Basic NeedsStatewide, almost 23 percent of Iowa households are earning incomes below what is needed to meet their basic needs. However, there is considerable variation in the prevalence of financial struggle across family types (see Table 1), with nearly 3 out of 4 single-parent households falling short of what is needed. More than a quarter of single adults and more than one-fifth of married couples with children also fall short. While they face the fewest difficulties as a group, earnings fall short of basic needs for still almost 1 in 8 married couples without children.

Cost of Living Threshold Is More Accurate Than Federal Poverty Guideline

Federal poverty guidelines are the basis for determining eligibility for public programs designed to support struggling workers. However, the federal guidelines do not take into account regional differences in basic living expenses and were developed using outdated spending patterns more than 45 years ago. The calculations that compose the federal poverty guidelines assume food is the largest expense, as it was in the 1960s, and that it consumes one-third of a family’s income. Today, however, the average family spends less than one-sixth of its budget on food. Omitted entirely from the guideline, child care is a far greater expense for families today with 23.5 million women with children under 18 in the labor force.[5] Transportation and housing also consume a much larger portion of a family’s income than they did 45 years ago.[6] Considering the vast changes in consumer spending since the poverty guidelines were developed, it is no wonder that this yardstick underestimates what Iowans must earn to cover their basic needs. Table 2, below, shows that a family supporting income, based on a basic-needs budget, is about twice the federal poverty guideline. As the largest areas of families’ budgets (housing, transportation and child care) continue to grow, there will be an increasing disconnection between actual basic needs and the federal poverty guidelines used to describe and assist struggling Iowans.

Basic-needs budgets — adjusted for regional differences and modern spending patterns — provide a more accurate picture of what families need to get by in Iowa. The family budgets constructed for this study represent a very frugal living standard and include allowances for housing (rent and utilities), food, child care, health care, transportation, clothing and other household necessities. (See Appendix 1 for a complete explanation of the methodology.) No money is included for debt payments; for education or skill training; for gifts, entertainment, vacations, or restaurant meals; or for savings of any kind, including retirement. Our report illustrates the importance of existing work support programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Iowa’s Child Care Assistance (CCA) program, and public health insurance. Expanding these critical programs would help more of Iowa’s working families make ends meet.

Each basic family budget applies to a particular family type — given the number of family members, the ages of the children, and the employment status of the adults. It represents the after-tax income needed to meet basic needs. Our analysis next calculates the before-tax income (wages and salaries) necessary to provide that required after-tax income, and the hourly wage needed to generate that annual income assuming workers were employed full-time, year round. The income tax calculation includes the offset provided by the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits, which are refundable, and all other credits for which the family is eligible.

Iowa Basic Needs Budgets

Single-Parent FamiliesTable 3 — single parent

As both the primary caregiver and earner, single parents have considerable responsibilities. Table 3 displays the various costs single-parent households incur in order to meet their families’ basic needs. In Iowa, there are about 156,000 single-parent families.[7] A single parent with one child must earn $17.91 per hour to provide this very basic standard of living for the family. A single parent with two children needs to earn $24.06 — 34 percent more — to adequately support his or her family. Child care costs alone consume 19 percent of a single-parent’s family budget with one child and 23 percent with two children. In fact, monthly child care costs for a single parent with two children are almost as large as housing costs. Nearly three-fourths of Iowa’s working single parents earn less than the supporting wage (see Table 1).

Data suggest that finding jobs with adequate wages for single parents is extremely challenging. This is particularly true for women, who head the vast majority of single-parent households in Iowa and earn 74 percent of what their male counterparts earn.[8] These findings underscore the critical importance of expanding work-support programs that can fill in the gaps between wages and basic living expenses.

Two-Parent Families Table 4 — two-parent

We estimate basic family budgets for four two-parent family types. First, we examine two families with both parents working outside the home, and then two families with one parent working and one parent at home caring for the children. The families are assumed to have either one child or two children.

Transportation, child care and housing are the most significant costs for two-parent families in Iowa with both parents working outside the home (Table 4). Child care alone consumes 15 percent of the household budget for a one-child family with both parents working and 19 percent if there are two children.

In the majority of two-parent families in Iowa, both parents work full time. If they have only one child, each working parent must earn $11.53 per hour to make ends meet. For families with two children, each parent must earn $14.15 per hour, or 23 percent more.

Table 5 — two-parentFamilies with one stay-at-home parent require about one-third less household income than families with two working parents. This is largely because families with one stay-at-home parent do not have to pay child care costs, which, for a two-child family with both parents working, would cost $807 per month. Though two-parent families with one worker require less income to get by, the working parent must earn significantly higher wages than he or she would if both parents were working. Two-parent families with one parent working also save money on transportation. Working adults in families with one child and one stay-at-home parent must earn $16.77 per hour to support the family (Table 5). With two children in the family, the working parent must earn $18.99, The higher cost of living for two-children families is due to increased food, health care and housing costs.

Single-Adult Households

Single, childless adults require far less income to provide for their basic needs. With fewer expenses, a sustaining Table 6 — single adult wage for a single adult is lower than the wage needed for supporting a family. Nevertheless, even with a far lower threshold than other family types, 28 percent of single adults in Iowa earn less than the $12.01 per hour (shown in Table 6) required to meet basic needs.

Basic Needs Budgets in Iowa’s Metropolitan & Non-Metropolitan Areas

Appendix 1 presents information on the cost of living for four different family types in each of Iowa’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and non-Metropolitan regions. MSAs are comprised of entire counties; 20 of Iowa’s 99 counties are considered part of an MSA. For MSAs that cross state boundaries, we include only the Iowa counties in our calculation of family budgets. The 79 Iowa counties outside of metropolitan areas are grouped into four regions. We also include a table for the three-county area consisting of Polk, Dallas and Warren counties. While not included in the appendix, information is available for each county from the map at the top of this page.

Of the nine metropolitan areas, Ames and Omaha-Council Bluffs are the highest cost regions due to higher rent and commuting costs, and — in the case of Council Bluffs — higher health insurance rates. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area was the lowest cost. A married couple, both working, with two children, would need $63,316 in before-tax income in Ames, but only $53,689 in the Waterloo area, to meet basic family needs. Of the four non-metropolitan regions, the highest costs are in the southeast quadrant of the state, the lowest costs in the northwest region. Table 7 - selected areas

While nearly 23 percent of families statewide have incomes less than what is needed to meet basic needs, the proportion of families in Iowa’s metropolitan areas is lower. (See Table 7.) (The American Community Survey samples in the remaining counties were too small to produce reliable estimates.) Higher incomes in metropolitan areas, combined with shorter commutes and the availability of public transit, more than offset higher housing and child care costs there.

Trends in Basic Expenses for Iowans

Since our last Cost of Living report, which was based on 2008 spending data, total expenses have risen between 5 and 9 percent, which translates into an additional $1,600 to $4,200 for basic needs per year, depending on family type. Price increases have been modest for the most part because of the recession during this three-year period. The cost of the USDA low-cost food plan for married couples with children rose 5 to 7 percent from 2008 to 2011, and for single parent families rose 10 to 11 percent. While the cost of health insurance has risen significantly in the past decade, increases have moderated in the past two years. Between 2009 and 2011, the health care component of the Consumer Price Index rose 6.6 percent; this was about the same as overall inflation, but below the rates of increase in health costs of previous years.[9] Child care costs for a 2- or 3-year-old rose 3.0 percent from 2008 to 2011, while the costs for a 2-year-old plus a 6-year-old rose 4.5 percent. On the other hand, housing costs in Iowa, as measured by HUD Fair Market Rents, increased just 0.6 percent between 2008 and 2011. The IRS mileage rate, which reflects the overall cost of owning and operating a vehicle, actually declined slightly from 2008 to 2011.

For families who need child care, child care costs consume 15 to 23 percent of the basic-needs budget. With an infant, this share would be even higher. In 2011, the average annual cost for full-time infant care in an Iowa child care center was $8,588; this exceeds the cost of a year’s undergraduate tuition at one of Iowa’s public universities.[10]

Work Supports Can Help, But Fall Short for Some

For families who receive them, work supports can close the gap between low wages and the high cost of basic needs.[11] These are programs that reward workforce participation by decreasing basic living expenses (such as child care, food, health insurance and utilities) or increasing take-home pay through tax credits. Eligible Iowans can access the following work support programs: Child Care Assistance (CCA), Food Assistance (FA), public health insurance for adults (Medicaid or IowaCare) and children (hawk-i), Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC).

For some working families with very low wages, work supports can help them meet their daily living expenses. However, as incomes rise, families experience significant financial cliffs when work supports discontinue before they are able to replace the assistance with adequate income.

Figure 1 illustrates how work supports help a low-wage family reach a level of resources necessary to meet basic needs. The break-even line indicates the level of resources needed by a single parent with two children to achieve the basic family budget for such a household in Des Moines ($46,428 in 2009). At a wage below $11 per hour the family is earning less than half this amount, but if family members were to take advantage of all the work supports for which they were eligible, they would have net resources near or above the break-even level.

However, as the wage increases above $11 per hour, work supports begin to phase out. The loss of child care assistance as earnings approach $12 an hour has the most dramatic effect on a family’s resources, pushing them over a benefit cliff that leaves them worse off — by over $6,000 annually — and well below the basic-needs budget. The struggle to get back to the break-even level is hindered further by the loss of LIHEAP benefits, food assistance, and the EITC. The single parent will have to earn above $20 an hour to regain the same level of resources the family had at $11 in wages and all work supports.

Figure 1. As Pay Increases, Net Resources Fluctuate
Single Parent in Des Moines with Two Children, Ages 2 and 6, 2009

Figure 1 — cliff effects

Source: National Center for Children in Poverty’s Family Resource Simulator, Iowa 2008 When eligible, the family receives the following work supports: federal and state tax credits, SNAP/Food Stamps, LIHEAP, public health insurance and a child care subsidy. Budget numbers are from the Iowa Policy Project report The Cost of Living in Iowa. Calculation includes updated food assistance eligibility as of January 2011.

Iowa’s Child Care Assistance (CCA) program is designed to help the lowest-earning families cover child care costs. However, families earning more than 145 percent of the federal poverty level — or $26,869 for a family of three in 2011 — are ineligible for the assistance. Our report finds that even with CCA, $26,869 a year is inadequate income for a single parent supporting two children. In fact, a single parent earning the maximum income to still qualify for CCA would fall more than $5,000 short of the after-tax income needed to meet basic needs.[12]

Previous Iowa Policy Project research has found the EITC to be a powerful policy tool to help working families — particularly single parents.[13] The EITC provides an income tax credit that is a percent of wages, thus increasing a worker’s take-home pay. A single parent with two children would benefit from up to $5,470 in federal and state earned income credits, the amount received when earnings are between $12,780 and $16,690. Both the federal and state EITC begin to phase out at income levels above $16,690, however, well before this single parent earns a wage that will support the family’s basic needs. The credit disappears completely at an earnings level of $40,964, well below the basic family budget of $48,111 for a single parent with two children.

For a single parent with one child under 6, the EITC will have shrunk to just $42 by the time the parent has increased earnings to the break-even budget level of $35,823. Of the family types illustrated in this report, only the married couples with one or two children, and with just one parent working, will still be receiving a substantial EITC benefit ($1300 to $1800) at the point where earnings reach the basic-needs budget level.

Public health insurance programs help low-income families reduce the burden of health care costs. While children may enroll in hawk-i if their families’ incomes are below 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($55,590 for a family of three in 2011), parents are ineligible for Medicaid if their income exceeds 82 percent of the poverty guideline ($13,156 for a family of three in 2011).[14] Low-wage earners are the population least likely to be offered health insurance benefits through their employer.[15] Expanding Medicaid eligibility to 150 percent of the federal poverty level would provide over 145,000 Iowans with insurance.[16]

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations

With nearly one out of every four non-elderly households in Iowa earning less than the income needed to survive on a basic-needs budget, it is clear that a strong set of work supports is essential to allow Iowa families to achieve a basic standard of living. This is especially true among households with children.

This report’s findings underscore the critical importance of expanding already existing work-support programs, such as the EITC, CCA and public health insurance. This is particularly true for the 74 percent of single-parent families who are working but still earn less than what they need to get by day-to-day. With stagnating wages across the state and with women, who head the vast majority of single-parent households in Iowa, earning 74 percent of what their male counterparts earn, state policymakers must enact solutions to help close the gap between low wages and basic living expenses. Housing costs represent 20 to 25 percent of household budgets at the basic-needs level, and a higher share at lower income levels, yet housing assistance is provided to only a small share of the families who are income-eligible.

As noted above, CCA, EITC and Medicaid partially or entirely phase out before our family types reach a family-supporting income level. Previous IPP work has explored the fiscal returns to expanding programs — raising CCA eligibility to 200 percent of poverty, extending the EITC to 15 percent of the federal EITC, and expanding Iowa’s Medicaid program to cover all adults with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.[17] Even though our previously modeled expansions fall short of pushing families above the cost of living thresholds, eligible families below those thresholds would have increased earnings and more room in their budgets for essential needs.

We recommend the following policy changes to address the continuing gap between earnings and a basic-needs budget for nearly a quarter of Iowa families:

• Child Care Assistance: Increase income eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline.
• State Earned Income Tax Credit: Increase to 30 percent of the federal credit.[18]
• Medicaid: Increase income eligibility to 150 percent of the federal poverty level and allow working single adults to qualify for assistance.
• Housing Assistance: Develop a state-sponsored housing assistance program to offset the significant burden of housing costs.
• Raise wage and benefit standards in economic development programs.

View Appendix 1 — methodology.

View Appendix 2 in this report, which shows basic-needs budgets for various localities in the state. The graphs from that appendix are below:

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[1] A cost of living index for Iowa seniors, called the Elder Economic Security Standard, has been created by Wider Opportunities for Women and is available at
[2] U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey, Table R2302, “Percent of Children under 6 Years Old with All Parents in the Labor Force.”
[3] Andrew Cannon and Molly Fleming, Cost of Living in Iowa, The Iowa Policy Project (January 2010); Elaine Ditsler and Beth Pearson, The Cost of Living in Iowa, The Iowa Policy Project (January 2008).
[4] Because of their very small numbers in the overall population of Iowa households, we did not include married couple families with more than three children or single-parent families with more than two children. We also did not include married couples or single parents with an adult child living at home because of the impossibility of determining if the adult child was a student, or how the adult child (and in some cases his or her spouse or partner) shared income and expenses with the parent. Because we wanted to know what it takes for families to support themselves without work supports or public assistance, we considered only families with at least one adult who works, and our budgets assume full-time work.
[5] Hilda L. Solis and Keith Hall, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2011).
[6] Sylvia A. Allegretto, Basic family budgets: Working families’ incomes often fail to meet living expenses around the US, Economic Policy Institute (August 30, 2005).
[7] Data from the Current Population Survey, 2010, available at
[8] Comparing the median earnings of full-time, year-round workers, women in Iowa earned 73.6 percent of what men earned. U.S. Census Bureau, Men’s and Women’s Earnings for States and Metropolitan Statistical Areas: 2009, Table 1. Report ACSBR/09-3 (September 2010).
[9] Families on a basic needs budget maintained similar costs to three years ago in part because of changes to available plans. In our previous study, Iowans were afforded coverage with a $500 deductible; this type of coverage was no longer available at the time rates were checked for the current report. As a result, families are paying slightly less, but for less coverage. Now, their budgets include health insurance with a $1,000 deductible for single coverage or $2,000 for families.
[10] National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, 2011 Child Care in the State of Iowa (March 2011).
[11] Sarah Fass, Kinsey Alden Dinan, Nancy K. Cauthen and Jessica Purmort, Making Work Pay for Iowa’s Families, National Center for Children in Poverty (September 2008).
[12] A single parent with two children earning 145 percent of poverty ($26,869) and paying for 30 percent of child care costs (the co-pay required at that level of income) would have after-tax income of about $30,385 because of refundable credits. That is more than $5,000 below the $35,762 basic needs budget for such a family, adjusted to reflect only the 30 percent of child care costs that the family is responsible for.
[13] Peter S. Fisher and Lily French, Expanding Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit: The Long-Term Benefits to the State, The Iowa Policy Project (June 2009).
[14] Martha Heberlein, Tricia Brooks, Jocelyn Guyer, Samantha Artiga and Jessica Stephens, Performing Under Pressure: Annual Findings of a 50-State Survey of Eligibility, Enrollment, Renewal, and Cost-Sharing Policies in Medicaid and CHIP, 2011-2012, Georgetown University Center for Children and Families and the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured (January 2012).
[15] Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, as compiled by Stephen Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2010.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Lily French and Peter S. Fisher, Strengthening Child Care Assistance in Iowa: The State’s Return on Investment, The Iowa Policy Project (March 2009); Expanding Iowa’s Earned Income Tax Credit, op. cit.; Beth Pearson, Lily French and Peter Fisher, A Healthier Iowa Labor Market: Medicaid Expansions and the Impact on Incomes and Work Choices, The Iowa Policy Project (June 2009).
[18] On average, an Iowa family’s state income tax is about 30 percent of what that family pays in federal income tax. For the state EITC to provide a comparable level of benefit, it should be about 30 percent of the federal EITC.

Lily FrenchLily French is a research associate and outreach coordinator for the Iowa Policy Project. She joined IPP in March 2008. A former policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, she has served as an adviser to state and local government officials on issues of child care, workforce development and microenterprise development. She holds a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree in Sociology from the University of Iowa.

Peter FisherPeter S. Fisher is a national expert on public finance and has served as a consultant to the Iowa Department of Economic Development, the State of Ohio, and the Iowa Business Council. His reports are regularly published in State Tax Notes and refereed journals. His book Grading Places: What Do the Business Climate Rankings Really Tell Us? was published by the Economic Policy Institute in 2005. Fisher holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is professor emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa.

Noga O'ConnorNoga O’Connor is a former research associate at the Iowa Policy Project, joining the organization in July 2010 to focus on issues of post-secondary training and the labor market, looking especially at the performance and well-being of Iowa workers. Her academic publications center on minorities in higher education. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education and formerly served as visiting faculty at the University of Iowa.

We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Northwest Area Foundation, the United Way of Central Iowa and the United Way of Johnson County, which made the preparation of this report possible. While these funders support the research that went into this report, they may not necessarily agree with policy recommendations that are included. Policy recommendations are solely the perspective of the authors and the Iowa Policy Project.