What’s the real poverty rate in Minnesota? Higher than you think


If you, like Brian Rusche, hear news reports about the poverty rate in Minnesota being about 10 percent and think: “Is that all it is?” read on.

Rusche, who makes his living advocating for the poor, has helped devise what he thinks is a more telling way of demonstrating the health of the American economy.

Called the Job Market Failure Index, this analysis includes both the numbers of unemployed and those who are working but not earning a “living” wage. “Over time this index has been getting worse and worse,” said Rusche, who heads up the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, an interfaith, public-interest lobby group.

“Everybody in their gut knows this is going on…that the number of families that are struggling mightily and are working” is not reflected in the usual unemployment numbers, Rusche told me Friday following his posting a piece called “Job Market Failure” to explain in more detail the concept he’d talked about on a local radio show. 

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The numbers of unemployed have risen along with the numbers of jobs not paying what is called a “family supporting wage,” he explains. 

By this standard, 39 percent of jobs in the Minnesota region pay less than living wage. By his calculations, the Job Market Failure Index in Minnesota in 2009 was 47 percent, compared to a Job Market Failure Index of 38 percent in 2002. 

A living wage was determined by the JOBS NOW Coalition and is “very sparse, stripped down expense budget,” using 2009 data they compiled on the cost of living in Minnesota, he says.

Cost of living
From the JOBS NOW Cost of Living fact sheet posted on their website:

“The average annual cost of meeting basic needs for a family of four with two workers in Minnesota is about $58,000.

“To cover these costs each worker must earn $14.03 per hour.

“Thirty-nine percent of jobs in Minnesota – more than a million jobs – pay less than a family-supporting wage of $14.03 per hour.

“At the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a couple with two children would have to work 155 hours a week to meet basic needs.”

The last election was all about jobs, Rusche said, but “we have to face up to the question of whether the jobs [being created] are good.”

“We want jobs that provide for food and shelter and stability,” Rusche said, not jobs that require government to pay workers rent and food assistance.

We need to factor in, he said, whether or not labor is sufficiently rewarded, “whether the business model makes sense for the good of the community.” He added: “If I hire somebody but don’t pay them enough to put a roof over their head, I’ve used them, in, I think, an immoral way.”
The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition is authorized and governed by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Islamic Center of Minnesota.