The living wage of Tompkins County has been increased from $16.61 to $18.45 per hour for a single adult with no children. The change represents an 11 percent increase over last year’s number, making it the highest single-year rise in the county’s living wage since 2006. The new living wage was calculated in a study conducted by a team from the Ithaca and Buffalo Co-Labs of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The term living wage refers to the income level that allows an individual to adequately afford shelter, food and other necessities.
Ian Greer M.S. ’03 Ph.D. ’05, director of the ILR Ithaca Co-Lab, and Russell Weaver, director of the ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, served as the head researchers of the 2023 Living Wage Study, which calculated the costs associated with living in Tompkins County and used that data to compute the county’s living wage.
Greer explained why it was important that he and Weaver lead the study on the county’s living wage.
“I have been working on living wage policy in Tompkins County since 2018,” Greer said. “I was motivated by members on the county legislature, Anna Kelles and Pete Myers, asking me to do it. It’s a really important discussion, how we bring up standards and whether we have a county-wide minimum wage.”
In Tompkins County, the ILR study estimates that out of approximately 48,020 wage earners, around 38 percent earn hourly wages below $18.45, representing just under 18,000 workers earning less than the living wage estimate.
Weaver explained that the survey produced valuable data that encourages employers to pay their workers a fair wage.
“We do have in Tompkins County over 100 certified living wage employers, so it’s important to get those employers this information every year so they can adjust their wage scales accordingly and remain in good standing as living wage employers,” Weaver said.
As part of their study, Greer and Weaver calculated the costs of essentials such as housing, food and healthcare. They then used this data to determine the minimum hourly rate required to meet these basic necessities.
“The core of it is the living wage calculation itself, that is based on data, consumer expenditure using a couple of different data sets,” Greer said. “We took a list of expenditure items which commonly go into living wage calculations, we calculated the county specific number for all of these expenditure items, and then we created an annual basic needs budget.”
Weaver explained that the most surprising result from their study was how rapidly the living wage had increased in a year’s time. That increase of the computed wage was so high that the team had to compare their data to additional estimates to ensure accuracy.
“We wanted to be sure that [the increase] was right and not an artifact of the data that we were using, so we went forward and compared the number we came up with to other living wage estimates,” Weaver said. “We came to the conclusion that yes, the [increase] does seem to be justified. It is not surprising given that we have had historic inflation rates since 2022 in the US.”
According to the study, one of the primary contributing factors to the rise of the county’s living wage is recent increases in housing costs for residents.
“The reason the wage jumped so high up this time around is because the cost of housing went up by about 14 percent in over a year — it’s something we’ve been seeing statewide and nationwide,” Weaver said.
Greer explained that according to trends in the data, the current high rate in which housing costs have risen is expected to continue into next year, showing few signs of slowing down.
“The measure we use is the cost of rent, which is just going up rapidly,” Greer said. “We know what the figure will be for next year — it’s going to be another 10 percent increase in housing cost. It’s all about housing.”
Changes in market patterns surrounding renters and landlords is partially to blame for the rise in the cost of housing, according to Weaver.
“We started to see smaller landlords get out of the rental housing game and some bigger, especially corporate landlords coming in and starting to buy up rental properties,” Weaver said.
An additional cause of the housing cost increase may be the lack of affordable places for residents to live.
“We don’t have a good supply of affordable housing anywhere in this state,” Weaver said. “Just the sheer lack of available units also plays a role, with a supply and demand issue. Whenever you have a smaller supply or [fewer] available units, that tends to push the price way up.”
Weaver then explained that the significant added presence of university students has contributed to the lack of supply, leading to increased demand for housing.
“The worst-kept secret in the housing game is that student housing is a money-making machine,” Weaver said. “Owners of student housing can sort of get away with increasing rents ever so often. Usually when students are joined as roommates, they are paying a per room rate, and when you add all that together, rents start to really go up. This spills out and affects all other rental properties as well.”
Even with the increase in the living wage, for some, it is not enough. Greer explained that the cost of childcare is often overlooked, and suggested that the living wage be even higher.
“Childcare is also a huge factor that is not included in the living wage figure, but we included it in the study because it’s important,” Greer said. “The overall cost of childcare is a substantial fraction of the overall yearly budget which someone has to meet their basic needs. If we included childcare, the headline living wage figure would be much higher.”
Since 2023, the Ithaca and Buffalo Co-Labs of ILR are now responsible for calculating the living wage of the county. To ensure that the calculated living wage best fits the needs of the county’s workers, the cost of living will be recalculated each year.
“In the past, the living wage study was done every two years,” Greer said. “Now, the Ithaca and Buffalo Co-Lab will be calculating [the cost of living] every year, so next year in November, we will unveil the new [living wage].”
Dalton Mullins ’27 is a Sun staff writer and can be reached at [email protected].