The most disheartening meme to come out of our elected officials who try to justify the low wage structure of employees in this state, particularly teachers, is the hackneyed old argument about the low cost of living in South Dakota. I commented on this last month after reading a story about the effects of low teacher salaries here. The Rapid City Journal piece noted that low salaries were having a negative effect on our schools' abilities to hire and retain teachers. Predictably, and rather lamely, Governor Daugaard's office, through its spokesman Tony Venhuizen, responded, "the salary is lower if you don't adjust for the fact that we have very low taxes and the lowest cost of living." While the cost-of-living excuse may have been true for a long, long time, that old chestnut by now has been roasted into oblivion. The data just don't support what I consider to be a rather ill- and over-used rationale for South Dakota's lousy wage structure, particularly among its public employees, and even more specifically among its teachers. Thanks to my good friend Cory Heidelberger, whose Madville Times is still the best political blog in the state, I found some information that convincingly contradicts the notion that you can live in South Dakota on the cheap.
Not only does South Dakota rank way
above the "lowest cost of living" states, it actually sits in right
about the middle of the pack in the U.S.A. The Council for Community and Economic Research's 2013 ACCRA report rates SD as 31st in the country when it comes to cost of living. Those who would
question or dispute ACCRA's methodology should consider that it is a
widely used resource for cost-of-living data, its clients being
researchers, private corporations--even the United States Census Bureau.
In fact, I have seen challenges to ACCRA's methodology from credible
sources, but have yet to see any of those challengers produce
contradictory data. I invite readers to provide me data from other
sources. In the interim I stand by my conclusion that South Dakota is
far from a "low cost of living" state.
On this point I'm sure I have plenty of company among those who try to squeak by on South Dakota wages. That
Governor Daugaard keeps pouring millions of dollars into economic
development schemata that have yielded marginal, at best,
results--along with an occasional fiasco-de-la-fiascos like the Northern
Beef Plant in Aberdeen--seems like a fool's errand, given that our
regional wage scale ranking is nothing to write home about, much less
promote to potential investors and emigres. In a region that includes South Dakota and its bordering states, SD's median wage of $12.78/hr is the lowest of the bunch, according to ACCRA data supplied by Madville Times. The average among the six other states is nearly $14/hr.
Why a fool's errand? Because we keep bemoaning the lack of workers in South Dakota, but never draw a line between that dot and the dot that says, "we pay lousy wages here." Why would we expect workers to come to a state where it's likely to cost as much to live as it does almost anywhere else in the Midwest--and react with dismay that they won't come because they'll get paid the lowest median wage in the region? I mean . . . duh. I've written before about South Dakota's culture of complacency and its culture of denial. On this business of "lowest cost of living" I'll add one more: a culture of self-delusion.