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Wages Rise, but Many Iowa Workers Still Can't Afford Basic Living Expenses

United for Alice and the United Ways of Iowa have released an update to their ALICE report highlighting the continuing struggle of over 450,000 Iowa households whose incomes are too low to meet the cost of living.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed and is meant to be a more complete picture of who is struggling financially in our communities compared to just looking at the federal poverty line.

The updated report provides a revealing look at how Iowa workers in many occupations do not earn enough to afford what United Way has calculated as a basic survival budget. The report also addresses the fact that although incomes in many professions rose during the pandemic, a large number of workers are still struggling. Here's how the report's authors summarize the situation (boldface added):

"Of the 20 most common occupations in Iowa in 2021, 70% paid less than $20 per hour. All of these saw an increase in the median wage; for example, the median wage for drivers/sales workers and truck drivers increased by 15% to $20.77 per hour in 2021. But given that wages had stagnated for the previous decade, many top jobs still had a substantial percentage of workers who lived below the ALICE Threshold in 2021."

What are the top occupations where Iowa workers are struggling to make ends meet? We have summarized them below. The combined total employment shown for the these occupations was 217,540 in Iowa in 2021. Although wages in these occupations rose between 5 and 14 percent from 2019 to 2021, substantial numbers of workers in each are still struggling. (View more occupation data by visiting


Median Hourly Wage

% below ALICE threshold

Waiters and waitresses



Fast food and counter workers



Teaching assistants






Stockers and order fillers






​Laborers and freight, stock and material movers, hand



Personal care aides



US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

US Census Bureau, ACS PUMS, 2021

What about ALICE households in your community? We have updated the Community Profiles section of the Here We Grow website to now report the numbers of ALICE households in each metro community in addition to households living in Poverty.

For more local data about the cost of living, including tools to see who is struggling and estimates of common household budgets, visit the Housing Policy Reading Room from the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.

This blog post highlights Iowa statewide data. You can also download an infographic showing the new ALICE report data specifically for Polk County, Iowa:

polk county report-alice
Download PDF • 79KB


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