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Poverty rate drops slightly, but what does that really mean?

WILLMAR -- The national poverty rate dropped three-tenths of a percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the Census Bureau.

The bureau reported Tuesday that the rate dropped from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent last year.

A 0.3 percent decrease in the rate would mean that hundreds of thousands of people moved out of poverty, but is that what those numbers really mean?

The Associated Press stories on the statistical shift explain that the government defines poverty differently depending on people's circumstances.

A family of four with two children, for example, is in poverty if their income is $20,444 or less.

"Imagine trying to meet the needs of a family on that," said Jay Kieft, director of Kandiyohi County Family Services. "Severe: I don't know how else to put it."

While families making more than $20,444 have moved beyond what the federal government defines as poverty, they are still far short of the national median income which, according to the same Census Bureau report, was $48,200 in 2006.

Kieft explained that there are some controversies regarding how the federal government defines poverty.

He said the definition is based on a 1950s-era concept of a food basket. Other costs have greatly increased in such areas as transportation, child care, health care and housing.

"While they do adjust the poverty guideline, it's based on ancient premise," Kieft said.

Many experts and groups that deal with poverty disagree with how the guideline is determined, he said.

But, however it's defined, poverty has a greater impact on children because most families in poverty have children, Kieft said. As a result, whatever the overall poverty rate is, it's 3 to 4 percent higher for children.

It may be as high as 15 percent for children, he said, which means that one out of every seven children a shopper sees at a mall lives in poverty.

Income differences define and divide people, Kieft said, and those who aren't living in poverty tend to ignore, rationalize or blame the poor or the agencies trying to help them.

In this area, however, more people, agencies, nonprofit groups and communities of faith are stepping up to help those in need.

"I see things in the community that are promising," Kieft said.

"People do care and want to be involved in a different way," he said, adding, "We need to be strategic about getting more folks involved."

Gary Miller

Gary Miller is a Designer for Forum Communications Co. Born and attended public schools in Willmar, Minn. Served 20 years in U.S. Navy as a photojournalist. Worked at West Central Tribune and Forum Communications since retiring from the Navy in 1994.

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