Behind “Bottom Rung,” StateImpact Idaho’s Look at Low Wages

                                    Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Across the country, the number of workers earning minimum wage was going down. But in Idaho, it was going up.

Going up a lot — 63 percent from 2011 to 2012.

Suddenly, Idaho led the nation in the proportion of workers earning minimum wage. Previously, Idaho sat in the middle of the pack among the states. In just one year, Idaho had fallen from Number 30 to Number 50.

StateImpact Idaho reported this bad news back in February. But reporters Emilie Ritter Saunders and Molly Messick didn’t want to leave the story there. The numbers felt like a symptom of something deeper that had been turning up in their reporting on Idaho’s economy for almost two years. 

So Emilie and Molly set out with a simple question: Why is Idaho falling so far behind on wages so fast? The result is “Bottom Rung,” an insightful series that rolled out online and aired in Idaho over the past two weeks.

Interviews with economists and labor experts helped Emilie and Molly pinpoint the root causes of Idaho’s low-wage problem — and which storylines to chase.

There was the collapse of good-paying jobs in construction and high-tech manufacturing. There was rapid growth in  low-paying jobs at call centers. There was the influx of retirees, mainly from California, creating new demand for service workers at restaurants and retail operations that pay low wages.

State government had a role, too. Idaho has been disinvesting in education. Meanwhile, the governor has been using Idaho’s low wages as a selling point with businesses.

One challenge Molly and Emilie faced in reporting the series was finding workers earning minimum wage who would talk to them. As Molly wrote in her story kicking off the series:

Supervisors at fast food chains and retail establishments turned me down. One worker decided against an interview after his boss threatened his job. Finally, I selected a stretch of road in Boise that’s lined with strip malls, restaurants and gas stations, and started talking to people.

The series struck a chord with listeners and readers.  “In the two years of StateImpact Idaho’s existence,” Emilie says, “we’ve never had so much feedback from our audience as we’ve had in the last two weeks.” The stories kicked up some interesting conversations — check out Molly’s post on reader and listener comments and this Storify Emilie put together of the chatter on Twitter.

Molly says putting together Bottom Rung was “a good lesson in the great things that can result from taking a hard run at a big issue.” Sadly, it’s also Molly’s last run with StateImpact Idaho — she’s headed off to Central America for a few months to study Spanish. Good luck to Molly on her new adventures. And congrats to both Molly and Emilie on a nice job telling rich human stories about a complicated subject. 

 

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