When a difference of opinion is worth $20,000

Think a family of four can survive in Minnesota on the nation's average salary of $537 a week? Think again. In a recent poverty study by the Northwest Area Foundation, 25 percent of respondents said they believed a family of four needs to make at least $40,000 a year in order to make ends meet, while 39 percent said a family needs to earn more than that. However, the U.S. government defines the poverty threshold at less than half of that, at $19,350 for a family of four, meaning that families making $20,000 are not eligible for most federal-assistance programs.

By the federal government's definition, seven percent of Minnesotans, approximately 5,119 people, were living in poverty in 2004. But Minnesota also is the nation's fifth-richest state, so using federal guidelines to define quality of life in a state with a higher cost of living than most other states is like using a Bahamian's definition of "cold" to describe Minnesota weather. In other words, it's all relative, and the federal government's measurments ignore what it takes to get by in one of the nation's wealthiest states.

The 2004 median household income in Minnesota was $55,914, approximately $23,000 more than in the nation's poorest state, West Virginia, and about $15,000 more than the median income in Alabama, the state with the highest poverty rate. For a dollar-to-dollar comparison, a family making the federal poverty threshold of $19,350 in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, would need to earn $27,311 a year in Minneapolis to live comparably. And given that the fair market rent (the appropriate rent and utility costs as determined in each county by HUD) for a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas is $912, almost 30 percent of their pre-tax $27,311 salary would go toward basic living expenses.

So by Minneosta standards, those making the nation's average salary are barely getting by. But by the federal government standards, it's called living above the poverty threshold by approximately $10,000. Is it any wonder the war on poverty has been about as affective as the war on drugs?

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