Report: Almost 40 percent of Iowa households struggled to meet basic needs in 2016

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

A new report from a United Way research project found that 457,223 households in Iowa were “struggling to afford basic necessities” in 2016, the most recent year for which researchers have data. According to the report, that represents a 27 percent increase in the number of struggling households since 2010.

The United Way project is known by the acronym ALICE, which stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” Researchers determine the amount of money both a single adult and a family of four in a state need to afford the most basic level of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and a bare-minimum cellphone plan.

Researchers estimate a single adult needed $19,560 in annual income to meet basic needs in 2016, and a family of four (two adults, one infant and one preschooler) needed $56,772. Thirty-seven percent of Iowa’s 1,250,638 households fell below those levels.

“Many of these households belonged to working families,” Deann Cook, executive director of United Ways of Iowa, wrote in a letter accompanying the release of the ALICE report. “These workers are doing the jobs we rely on to make our communities run smoothly — they are cashiers, health care workers, child care providers, custodial staff, and customer service employees, and hold countless other vital jobs that make our days easier.”

To afford the necessities cited by United Way researchers, a single adult in Iowa would need a full-time job making $9.78 an hour, and a family of four would need to make $28.39 an hour. But as the report explains:

Low-wage jobs continued to dominate the employment landscape in Iowa, with 66 percent of all jobs paying less than $20 per hour. Although unemployment rates fell, wages remained low for many occupations. With more contract work and on-demand jobs, job instability also increased, making it difficult for ALICE workers to meet regular monthly expenses or to save.

Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the lowest minimum wage legally possible since it is also the federal minimum wage. That federal minimum wage has remained unchanged since 2009. In 2017, the Iowa legislature passed a bill freezing the state’s minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, and invalidating any city or county regulations — including one in Johnson County — that mandated a higher hourly wage.

The report includes the percentage of ALICE household by county. In Linn County, 30 percent of households fell below the ALICE threshold, as did 38 percent of Johnson County households. Decatur County in southern Iowa had the highest percentage of ALICE households, 52 percent, and Iowa County had the lowest with 29 percent.

Researchers used data from the several federal agencies — the Census Bureau, the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — as well as the Iowa Child Care Resource & Referral and the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

In her letter, Cook said United Way hoped the report would raise awareness about “this population that tends to be hidden in plain sight. ALICE does live in Iowa. Despite our reputation for feeding the world, we have Iowans who struggle to feed their families.”

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »


World of Bikes presents:


Come talk with our experts about ways to stay on the bike this winter! Find out more at World of Bikes.

Get Started

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.