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Editorial -- Poverty affects more families than you realize

Despite the fact that Minnesota ranks 10th nationally with a median per capita income of nearly $56,000, poverty is a growing problem in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — especially in Olmsted County.

In 2007, the statewide poverty rate fell from 9.8 percent to 9.5 percent, while Olmsted saw its rate jump from 6.7 percent to 8.8 percent. That means more than 3,000 people have recently joined the ranks of our county’s poor.

What happened in 2007? We suspect this is part of a long-term trend that only recently began to manifest itself. Job growth at Rochester’s major employers has been solid in recent years, but the so-called "service sector" also is expanding dramatically. Jobs in hotels, restaurants and retail stores generally don’t pay as much as those in manufacturing or the medical fields. But they are an important part of our region’s economy and attract many new tax-paying residents.

The vast majority of these newcomers work hard to provide for themselves and their families, but with inflation taking an increasing bite out their wallets, the task is even more daunting than the poverty statistics might indicate. A family of four with a stay-at-home mother and a father who earns just $10 per hour, with no medical benefits, isn’t considered to be living in poverty.

That’s right. With a gross income of $20,800, that hypothetical family would exceed the federal poverty level by $150. Before any taxes or other payroll deductions, that comes to $1,733 per month for rent, utilities, gas and auto insurance — not to mention "luxury" items including food, clothing, car repairs and health insurance.

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If that isn’t poverty, we don’t know what is. Small wonder, then, that our food shelves and emergency rooms are getting busier every year. People with incomes that are double the poverty level can have a hard time making ends meet.

So, as autumn approaches, we ask everyone who is in relative prosperity to begin making plans to help those who are struggling. Opportunities to give will abound in the coming weeks and months, and whether you donate to the United Way or directly to the Salvation Army, Channel One food shelf or other worthy organizations, do so with the knowledge that many, perhaps most, of the people in need aren’t sitting at home waiting for a handout.

They’re doing the best they can, and even if their prospects for career advancement are dim, they have high hopes for their children’s futures.

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