Minnesotans come face to face with povertyby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
A new report shows a majority of Minnesotans know people who are working long hours but still living in poverty. The perception of the problem is growing. An overwhelming majority say they hold their elected officials accountable for fixing the problem.
St. Paul, Minn. — The financial difficulties spread across the country in all geographic areas -- urban, rural and suburban. In Minnesota, four out of 10 people surveyed say they see people struggling financially.
Karl Stauber directs the Northwest Area Foundation, the group that commissioned the survey. It was designed to measure people's perceptions of poverty rather than personal experience.
"Since our work tends to focus on how do you help communities reduce poverty, not just individuals," says Stauber, "we chose to take more of that community-level focus."
Minnesota matched the nationwide average in most areas. More Minnesotans say they are willing to volunteer and to pay more in taxes for poverty prevention programs.
A majority say a family of four needs at least $40,000 a year to make ends meet. That is twice the federal poverty line. This comes at a time when a quarter of all households in the state have annual incomes below $25,000 a year.
Eddie Cole is one of them. He lives with his wife, Tasha, and their two children in South Minneapolis. Everything seems to be in order in their tidy house, but Eddie says it's what you can't see that matters.
"That stress really hurts when I have to look at my children and the things they need, I can't buy them. When I sit there and look at them, I'd rather do without in order for them to have what they want, what they need," Cole says.
Cole works full-time in the Mall of America housekeeping department. His wife works at their local church and is a full-time mom. The Coles survive on less than $20,000 a year. Their apartment is affordable and food stamps help them with food expenses. They have no health benefits.
Susan Roedl, who runs St. Stephen's Employment and Family Services in Minneapolis, says jobs are the underlying issue when it comes to poverty. She says a changing economy means more service jobs with low wages and no health care. A lack of stability makes it tougher for people without a college education to live comfortably.
"There aren't good-paying entry-level jobs. You can't just get a high school diploma and get a good job anymore. And that with all of this family-values talk, that does not promote families at all; it's very destructive," Roedl says.
That stress is familiar to Tina Weitzel of Albertville. She works at United Healthcare and her husband worked at General Electric until recently when he was laid off. A series of health emergencies coincided with the lay-off. Weitzel says that's when things started going downhill fast.
"We were buying everything with our credit cards because that was the only way we could survive in the hopes that he was going to get a job," she says.
They didn't expect it to take seven months. Then Tina had to have brain surgery. The Weitzels quickly maxed out their credit cards, refinanced their house, depleted their 401K and eventually declared bankruptcy. Now, her husband works two jobs in addition to doing a paper route. His income from two new jobs, plus Tina's job and the paper route comes to about $60,000 a year.
The city of Minneapolis recently studied the benefits of having more residents working, and found good entry-level jobs can keep people out of poverty.
"In just one year, the return on investment is 25 percent, so within four years you get your money back just in tax dollars and criminal-justice savings for jobs programs," says Mike Christenson, who is the director of the city's economic development.
Seventy-three percent of Minnesotans surveyed say they will think about how well a candidate would help people in poverty the next time they're near the ballot box. But fewer say their public officials are aware enough of poverty.
Tina Weitzel says elected officials don't seem to understand what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck.
"It's nerve wracking to know on a weekly basis I don't know if I'm going to be able to pay all my bills at the end of this week," says Weitzel. "All of that is something that keeps you up at night and I can't imagine that most of the people who are in politics can understand that."
Officials from the Northwest Area Foundation say the survey results show that policymakers need to be more aware of poverty. The group plans to share the survey results with lawmakers over the coming months.
- Morning Edition, 04/30/2007, 7:25 a.m.