Congressional candidates grapple over workforce issues, immigration

By: - October 18, 2022 2:26 pm

Inflation, workforce shortages and immigration are among economic issues congressional candidates are addressing in their campaigns. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As Iowa reckons with recent inflation and lingering impacts of the pandemic, Republican candidates for Congress are asserting they can fix workforce shortages and other economic troubles if they take control in this year’s midterm elections.  

But Democrats argue that the actions taken by President Joe Biden’s administration to address economic struggles are working, and that cuts to these programs will only hurt working- and middle-class families.

Inflation could lead to higher unemployment

U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics data found an 8.2% increase in annual consumer prices this September, just slightly down from the 8.3% rise in August.

The Federal Reserve raised federal fund interest rates multiple times as the country faced record-high inflation over the summer, and rates are expected to continue to rise in light of the latest Consumer Price Index data. The increased interest rates are intended to reduce demand for products and services, which means a slowdown in business spending – including spending on new workers.

Iowa’s workforce participation has improved since the severe drop during the pandemic and the current state unemployment rate is sitting at 2.6%. But Iowa could see the impact of a predicted national unemployment rate increase in 2023. The Federal Reserve predicts the national unemployment rate will rise from 3.7% to 4.4% by the end of 2023, because of recent federal steps to curb inflation.

Inflation was rated the top issue among Iowa voters in the July Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, with 60% of poll respondents saying the issue was critical to them personally. Abortion and gas prices were the next highest priority issues, the poll found.

Republicans on the campaign trail are using those economic concerns to argue against President Joe Biden and Democrats’ economic agenda, saying it will bring the return of high unemployment and costs. 

Republican Zach Nunn, a state senator who is running against Democratic incumbent Cindy Axne for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, said the rising costs of living and interest rates can all be linked to federal spending in Biden’s administration. He also said the U.S. needs to depend less on international trade for energy needs, citing record-high gas prices earlier this year.

He and other Republican congressional candidates have spent time on the campaign trail calling for reversals to recent spending measures like the Inflation Reduction Act, the Build Back Better Program and Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness program.

Nunn said these spending measures, which include some increased taxes for corporations, are behind rising costs of living.

“If you are better off than you were two years ago when Axne and Biden got elected, then you’re in the minority,” Nunn said in a KCCI debate. “Because there are Americans and Iowans in all 21 (counties of the 3rd District), in all economies, who are suffering.”

But Axne, Iowa’s only elected Democrat in Washington, said these measures are working. Tax increases to the wealthy will help regular families and offset inflation, she said, and the American Rescue Plan is giving more families money. 

“There’s more money in people’s pockets these days because of the support they received from the American Rescue Plan,” Axne said in the debate. “And because of the supply chain agenda that we’re putting forth, we’re improving every single day on those price fluctuations to get them back down to normal.”

Incumbent Republicans like longtime U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley say Republicans must retake Congress to prevent Democrats from passing more legislation like The American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, which they claim are behind the summer inflation surge. 

Grassley’s Democratic opponent, retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken,during a debate on Iowa Press, linked workforce shortages and inflation to offshored manufacturing and limits to immigration. But Grassley said the rate of inflation under Biden’s administration is behind the high costs.

“It’s quite certain that if he were in the United States Senate, he would be a rubber stamp for the continuation of these policies,” Grassley said during the Iowa Press debate. 

The American Rescue Plan did add to inflation, experts said in a PolitiFact article, but there are larger factors contributing to rising costs. Supply chain disruptions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine played a significant role driving up commodity prices this year, economists said.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson, who is running in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, said during a KCRG-TV9 debate Oct. 12.the Democrats’ infrastructure bill’s high price tag also worsened inflation.

Democrat Liz Mathis challenged Hinson for voting against these spending measures while praising the Iowa projects they funded. But Hinson said while she supports some of the projects funded in the infrastructure bill which benefit Iowa, the large package worsened inflation. 

“I think more money should be in your pocket, and we should be sending targeted resources to our states,” Hinson said. “Having targeted resources for targeted projects is the way we do that, that respects taxpayers and respects the process.”

Ryan Melton, the Democrat running against Rep. Randy Feenstra in Iowa’s 4th District, has made declining populations in rural Iowa a central concern of his campaign. At the Iowa State Fair, he called for raising the minimum wage and for greater government investments in healthcare and education in rural communities.

Quality of life improvements are needed to bring back workers and families to Iowa, he said. People will not move back to Iowa if they face problems like child care deserts, low wages and high costs, Melton said.

“If you can’t find child care so that both parents can work, that’s going to put you in a really tough spot,” Melton said. “And that’s another disincentive that’s driving young people away.”

How immigration plays into Iowa’s workforce discussion

Although Iowa’s workforce participation has improved since the severe drop during the pandemic, it’s not at the levels needed to fill openings. According to the most recent Iowa Workforce Development data, Iowa has around 84,000 unfilled jobs but only 44,700 unemployed residents.

Republicans have linked U.S.-Mexico border security with rising opioid overdoses, calling for increased measures to stop people from crossing into the country illegally. Iowa Democratic candidates have acknowledged the need for border security, but call for more focus on how immigration reform could bring more workers to places like Iowa.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh visited Iowa in early October, headlining the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Hall of Fame event and campaigning with Axne. He said the U.S. must both improve working conditions and its immigration system to address workforce struggles.

There are 11 million job openings in the U.S.,Walsh said in an interview with WHO-13, but only 5 million Americans are eligible for those jobs. To fill those 6 million remaining positions, America needs to bring in more workers – while still keeping border security in mind, he said.

“Employers want immigration reform, employers need workers,” Walsh said.

Republicans running in the midterms have also said that immigration reform is needed. Nunn said during a recent campaign event that he saw the impacts of the U.S. immigration system’s problems in person when he visited the southern border. The border crisis pushes people who would migrate legally to seek help from cartels or cross illegally, he said.

“We’ve talked to folks who spent 10 years in the immigration process system who … were supposed to become U.S. citizens, but they’re still working to get across the border legally,” Nunn said. Some of the people he met in the jail “ were just fed up with waiting this long and came here the wrong way.”

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks has also balanced calls for border security with immigration reform during the campaign season. In July, the Republican introduced a measure to support people impacted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA was created during former President Barack Obama’s administration to provide temporary relief to children brought into the country unlawfully.

In an Iowa Press debate, Miller-Meeks highlighted this legislation and measures to allow the State Department to roll over unused green cards to expand legal immigration. 

Though she supports immigration reform, she emphasized that the federal government must do more to support “overwhelmed” border communities.

“I do think both parties have tossed this issue around,” Miller-Meeks said. “But meanwhile we have thousands of people that are waiting to come to this country legally, who want to come to this country legally and that I think can help … with workforce. It’s not the primary reason that we have them here, but they bring value to our country.”

Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan agreed that the U.S. immigration system was broken, but said Washington politicians like Miller-Meeks have not done enough to help the people and businesses struggling through the legal process. She told a story of a Latina restaurant owner she met on the campaign trail who is struggling with getting employees because of the complicated system for hiring immigrant workers.

“What we need to do is make sure that we’re helping small businesses navigate getting visas and working through that bureaucracy because it is a challenge for a lot of people,” Bohannan said. “It’s complicated and I think that we need to help our small businesses here get the workers that they need.”

Feenstra said at a September event in Denison that worker shortages are the number one concern he hears about from 4th District constituents, according to the Denison Bulletin-Review. 

Addressing worker shortages at a federal level means focusing on programs like the H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers on a temporary basis, he said. 

“When our unemployment is at 3% or below, we have to think through how we grow an economy when you need more labor,” he said. “At the federal level it’s the H-2A program. It’s seeing what we can do to make sure people are not sitting at home, that we’re doing everything we can to get people into the labor market.”

A January Gallup poll found more Republicans – 69% – want the U.S. to admit fewer migrants, compared to 2020, when 48% expressed a desire for less immigration. However, a July poll found that 70% of Americans still see immigration as having an overall positive impact on the country.

Early voting starts Oct. 19 in Iowa and the election is Nov. 8. Here’s what to know as absentee voting begins.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.