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South Dakota Counties Short on Living Wages for Families

We spend a lot of time here in the blogosphere looking at South Dakota's wages from different angles: a regional low for workers' earning potential and for median wages, low wages motivating a quarter of our vo-tech grads to leave the state, and less cushion in average wages for folks raising families.

Let's add this new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on average weekly wages in 2013, county by county, nationwide:

Average weekly wage, by county, 2013. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Click to access super-cool interactive map at BLS website!)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Click to access super-cool interactive map at BLS website!)

South Dakota has a tiny strip of top-quintile wage opportunity along I-29 in Union, Lincoln, and Minnehaha counties. Union County offers the best average wage in the state, $885 a week, while Lincoln and Minnehaha each crack $800. The next best average weekly pay is in Harding County, $753. The only other counties that break $700 are around the big metros of Pierre (ah, government!), Brookings, Aberdeen, and Rapid City.

I-90 isn't helping Jackson County much; the Kadoka-Wanblee metroplex offers the lowest average wage in South Dakota, $427 a week. Three other counties—Jones, Lyman, and McPherson (Charlie Hoffman! work harder!)—fail to break $500.

Before I go crazy with the analysis, let's recognize two important facts about these numbers. The BLS is mapping average weekly wage. As is usually the case with wage data, averages are highly skewed by the handful of top wage earners. In Union County, for instance, most workers in North Sioux City are making less than $885 a week (work 50 weeks a year, that's $44,250 annually); the handful enjoying the good life behind state-funded dikes at Dakota Dunes skew that average with their six-figure salaries.

Furthermore, this BLS dataset only counts wage earners. These figures don't fully reflect the general economic health of each county because they don't count the unemployed. For instance, Shannon County (that's Oglala County to you, wasicuhoka hey!) beats most counties in South Dakota with an average weekly pay of $681. So does Buffalo County at $666. Yet these two counties regularly top the lists of poorest counties in the U.S. because there aren't enough jobs to go around. Those higher average wages don't include all the folks earning zero.

With those caveats in mind, let's look at how well those wages put food on the table. MIT's Living Wage Calculator offers data on the income it takes for wage earners to provide for themselves and for different sized families in each state, county, and town. Remember, "living wage" doesn't mean middle-class standard of living; it means food, shelter, visit to the doctor, gas to get to work, nothing fancy.

The county figures don't differ much from county to county in South Dakota—the biggest difference between Jackson and Union counties is $43 a week. You can pick your county and compare the BLS wage data, but here, let's settle for the statewide living wage figures (I take MIT's hourly-wage data for South Dakota and multiply by 40 hours):

Hourly Wages Living Wage Poverty Wage
1 Adult $298 $208
1 Adult, 1 Child $649 $280
1 Adult, 2 Children $806 $352
1 Adult, 3 Children $1,004 $424
2 Adults $498 $280
2 Adults, 1 Child $616 $352
2 Adults, 2 Children $670 $424
2 Adults, 3 Children $782 $496

The average wage in almost every county will keep most families out of poverty. But for a living wage, add even on child to your household, and you'll be able to get by on one average full-time paycheck in 28 of South Dakota's 66 counties. Have two children, and you're down to 13 counties where a family can afford to have one parent stay home while the other works 40 hours a week—and again, that assumes you have two parents in the home and that the working parent can land a job with average pay, meaning pay that (remember the rich skew!) will be higher than the majority of jobs offer.

You want a family-friendly state? Step one is to brown up that map, increase wages, and create more jobs that allow one honest hard worker to support a family.


  1. larry kurtz 2014.07.21

    After tweeting this map the other day it struck me that those lighter counties would make perfect bison corridors and that it also made a fine argument for significantly decreasing the number of South Dakota county seats.

  2. bearcreekbat 2014.07.21

    The statewide weekly living wage figures are informative. Many argue that we need to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which would gross $600 per week. According to your figures that is insufficient to raise an adult with one child to the living wage. This makes it even more distressing when conservatives oppose raising the minimum wage from a measly $7.25 an hour, or $290 a week, which is below a living wage for even one adult without kids.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.21

    Larry, those light-colored counties offer a wealth of possibilities... more, perhaps for bison than workers.

    Bearcreekbat, the campaign for Initiated Measure 18 should talk about the living wage. It should put the current minimum in the context of what it really costs to raise a family. The forty-hour workweek exists because we thought that's the normal amount of time a worker should have to sacrifice to an employer in order to earn her or his liberty for the rest of the week. You're not supposed to have to have two 40-hour jobs to live, or to keep your kids alive. You don't have liberty if you have to surrender your every waking moment to The Man. (I'm feeling that Libertarian speech coming on!)

  4. Joan Brown 2014.07.21

    Back when I was married and had two kids, I was also a stay at home Mom, my husband had one of the highest paying jobs in the medium size SD city that we lived in, for somebody without a college education, he didn't even have a high school education, and we were just at poverty level back then. We qualified for a Government 235 house, which most people referred to as a low income house. The mortgage payment was based on income. Most of the homes were new, basic rectangle shaped houses. If I remember right the cost of the home was $19,500. When we got divorced in 1983, the house was 11 years old and we sold it for $40,000. That being said we had added a garage(non-detached) and finished half the basement, doing a little bit at a time.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.22

    Joan, I wonder if your family could have made it now on just one income.

  6. lesliengland 2014.07.22

    Kochs opening sx. falls office to defeat min. wage. let's show them the door. 280 more comments?

  7. Jerry 2014.07.22

    The only thing that will bring in more good paying jobs is renewable energy projects. That is all we have to offer here. Or, we could offer drug stores like the one's in Colorado along that I-90 corridor. Either one would make more sense than trying to defeat a minimum wage.

  8. Jenny 2014.07.23

    Reading SD wage articles always make me feel rich. I am forever grateful for getting out of the land of low wage and being able to find a job in MN with an employer that will pay me a satisfying wage that most people in SD would only dream of.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.23

    Ah, South Dakota, reinforcing everyone else's self-esteem since 1889. We're happy to serve, Jenny! :-D

  10. jerry 2014.07.23

    9 comments on our shitty wages in South Dakota and 300 on God getting his ass kicked by everyone other than Sibson and he is laughing about it.

  11. Bill Fleming 2014.07.23

    A minimum wage increase is on the ballot in SD this fall mostly because if left up to the SD Legislature, it probably wouldn't pass. Hopefully, people who want this will go to the polls and vote YES.

  12. Roger Cornelius 2014.07.23

    As Harry Truman said, "Republicans believe in minimum wage, the more minimum the better".

  13. larry kurtz 2014.07.23

    Get real, people: expect a South Dakota legislature to do everything it can to overturn an initiated law that helps anyone but their donors.

Comments are closed.