Tompkins County living wage sees an ‘unprecedented’ increase

ILR researchers have calculated the 2023 living wage for Tompkins County is nearly 10% higher than in 2022, the highest increase in three decades. The most important factor driving the new figure is the increased cost of housing.

Experts from the Cornell ILR School’s Ithaca and Buffalo Co-Labs used a new, more accurate methodology to estimate that the 2023 living wage for a single adult, living alone with no children, in Tompkins County is $18.45 per hour. This is a 9.6% increase over the 2022 figure – $16.84 – that would have been calculated using the new methodology.

The report estimates that roughly 18,000 workers living in Tompkins County earn less than the living wage despite upward wage pressures caused by low unemployment. There are also stark racial disparities, with 59% of Black workers making below the living wage, compared with 35% of white workers. There are also gender disparities: 41% of women make less than a living wage, compared with 34% of men.

“The increase in the living wage is unprecedented in the three-decade history of local living wage calculations, and they reflect recent increases in the cost of living locally, most importantly the cost of housing,” said Ian Greer, director of the Ithaca Co-Lab. “Living wage-certified employers have one year to adapt, and this will not be easy for some of them.

“For policymakers, it is time to tackle the problem of poverty wages, which affects 18,000 wage earners who live in the county, including three out of five Black workers,” Greer said.

Russell Weaver, director of research at the ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, calculated the wage using an updated methodology that incorporates more geographically detailed spending data that captures the difference between Tompkins County and other parts of New York state.

From 1994 to 2021, Alternatives Federal Credit Union calculated the living wage every two years with the assistance of ILR undergraduates. In 2022, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center calculated the figure and for years has been contributing to public discussions about the issue. This is the first year ILR researchers have been involved; they’ve been working with Alternatives and the Workers’ Center to come up with the new methodology.

“We are bringing new data and more comparison wage numbers to bear on the solid foundation that the Alternatives Federal Credit Union has been building up for decades,” Weaver said. “What we were able to do this time around was use the power of Cornell University’s premium data subscriptions to generate estimates that are more specific to Tompkins County, as opposed to using national or statewide data from more conventional sources.”

The wage is calculated by generating an annual basic-needs budget made up of nine categories, including food, housing, transportation, communication, recreation and health care, and then dividing that figure by 2,080 hours – 40 hours per week over 52 weeks – to compute an hourly wage for a full-time worker.

“I’m very proud to have worked with Russell Weaver, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center and Alternatives Federal Credit Union to update the methodology for the living wage,” Greer said. “The previous calculations used public datasets with statewide or national estimates of consumer expenditures, so the number was not as accurate as it could be for Tompkins County, which has a higher cost of living than many of our neighboring counties.”

In the future, ILR researchers plan to produce the report annually, with updates every November.

Julie Greco is a senior communications specialist for the ILR School.

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