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How poor is poor?

Years ago, during a discussion about the debate over the measurement and definition of poverty (a surprisingly controversial subject), someone told me about an interesting survey.

Ordinary Canadians were asked, in essence, where they would draw the poverty line.

The question was this: “In your opinion, what is the minimum amount of annual before-tax income a family of four in your community requires to meet its basic needs?”

Then everybody’s answers were averaged out, and, interestingly, the average came quite close to the actual poverty line, which is calculated in a totally different (and much less interesting) way.

So let’s do a little unofficial and unscientific survey right here and see how our results measure up against the poverty line.

How to Play

A) Please don’t look up the poverty lines before participating, and don’t read other people’s comments and guesses until after you’ve entered your own.

B) Answer the following questions in the comments:

1. In your opinion, what is the minimum amount of annual before-tax income a single person in your community requires in order to meet his/her basic needs?
2. In your opinion, what is the minimum amount of annual before-tax income a family of four in your community requires in order to meet its basic needs?

Remember, it’s not a test, there are no right or wrong answers, and I appreciate you taking the time to participate in Knitnut’s First Annual Unofficial and Unscientific Survey.


36 comments to How poor is poor?

  • Oh this is hard…we’ve moved to a very small town from a very rich area and poverty seems to be defined differently here. I would say … 20 000 for one person covers food shelter, transportation and incidentals and the ability to put aside a small buffer zone every month in case of an emergency, 35 000 for 4, 40 000 if the extra 2 are teen boys!

  • deb

    I would think 30,000 for single and 50,000 for a family of 4

  • future landfill

    For a single we’re talking $18-25K, gross income based on rent of about $650/month times three for food, clothing, transit, phone, taxes, utilities, and whatnot. For a family of 4 you need minimum $45-50K for the same necessaries. That won’t get you school trips, nights out, vacations or any other damn thing most of us grew up thinking we had a right to.

    If you have subsidized housing you might get a break on rent but your rent is based on income which is proportionately reduced, leaving you no further ahead.

    I recall a doctor telling me, 30 years ago, that when he graduated from Med School a few years earlier, he figured making $15K a year would put him on easy street. We laughed cuz he knew even then how naive he was.So were we all.

  • Oh and comments…I’m thinking of it as about 25 dollars a day for food and sundries like dish soap, shampoo etc in a family of 4, but a single person can’t easily do the things a family can as far as buying in bulk. Rent for the family of 4 would be 1000 minimum – more like 1200 or 1500 with utilities, 250 for transportation, then thrift store shopping for clothes, etc. If they need daycare that’s 25 a day if they don’t have a subsidy and that would eat up all their child tax credits etc.

  • James

    Okay, I guess I’d put the poverty line for a single person at about $12,000 and a family of four at around $30,000.

  • James

    Wow, I feel like I’m lowballing now after reading the other comments 😉 I guess I’m figuring a single person could rent a room for $400-500 and eat inexpensively and have few transportation requirements. Really depends on circumstances though I guess… location/distance from amenities, family makeup, etc.

  • James

    Although I will say that when I worked 37.5hrs/wk @ $8.00/hr ($300/wk before deductions, probably $250ish afterwards – or less if I was sick for a day) about 8 years ago, my roommate made the same.. we lived in a basement apartment and had internet, cable, were able to eat relatively well, afford beer & cigarettes and buy the odd toy… but we had no transportation costs. It was tight and there was no emergency money ofc, but I never felt like I was living in poverty. Costs have gone up a bit, but not by a lot if you look for a good deal on an apartment and live somewhat frugally.

  • Judi

    The poverty line is not a number,no matter how you calculate it. Being poor is a matter of choices, the fewer choices you have, the poorer you are. Poor people shop at the grocery store they can get to, not the one that offers the best value. Poor people go to the clinic they can get to, not the one that offers the best care (which is a totally different subject, the best care not always being in the “best” places). Poor people go to the jobs and schools they can get to, not the ones that offer the best opportunities. Being able to choose gives you the richest of lives, no matter how much money you have.

  • Malva

    20k for single and 35 for a family of 4.

    We’re a family of 4 and at 55k a year, we can’t afford extras but we eat well and live nicely. It’s the price to pay to have a parent at home, in our case, and I’m very grateful for it.

  • For a single person in NYC, I’m going to guess 30K, US.
    For a family of four (assuming no daycare costs), 55K.

    I’m a single mom on a SSgt (Staff Sergeant) Pay in the US Air Force, and I do surprisingly well here. However, I know that I’m the exception because so much of my pay isn’t taxed (no state tax, I get a bonus for knowing extra languages, don’t have to pay for medical or dental insurance, etc.)

  • 20,000 for a single and 40,000 for a family of 4?

  • I would say $25,000 for a single person, and $40,000 for a family of four… now saying that, I calculated it for just basic needs rent, heat, hydro, phone, food, and car. No internet,no cable, no discretionary funds for knitting supplies, etc. In fact I didn’t even calculate for clothing or shoes… poor kids…
    Interestingly enough, for the single person… I calculated the cost of gass was $200 more a year than the cost of food… (based on what I’m paying now as a single person)

  • Basic needs: basic cable, heat, electricity, phone, food (no food bank), no smoking, no drinking, car/gas.

    On the Ontario Disability Support Plan I receive $11,880 per year. But I also pick up $200 per month for odd jobs around town, so it gets bumped to $14280. My rent is low for this region so in this community I would peg the “minimum a single person in your community requires in order to meet his/her basic needs” at $15k.

    For a family of four in this region… my immediate reaction was $50,000.

    I also checked out the averages for this region on the Eastern Ontario Training Board and Statistics Canada sites and I thought you’d be interested in the median income results for Hawkesbury and region in 2005…

    Families (Hawkesbury only): $56,698… Ontario Average (OA): $72,734

    Single women (Hawkesbury): $27,217… OA: $21,669

    Female led one-parent family (Hawkesbury): $13,660
    Single parent family average (Cornwall): $29,380… OA: $42,088

    Single males (Cornwall only): $27,558… OA: $34,454

    Single females (Cornwall only): $18,201… OA: $21,669

  • Sorry Zoom, the salary for single women in Hawkesbury is entirely wrong.

    I do have a couple more numbers for you though… according to The (1999) Child and Youth Health Network for Eastern Ontario “the low income cut-off for a family of four in Prescott-Russell is $28,162 per year. More than 80% of the single parent families are headed by a woman and 36% of the lone mother families in Ontario are living below the low income cut-off. On average, female lone parent families in Prescott-Russell live on an income which is 48% below the average family income here.”

  • Kelsey

    haven’t read the other replies yet….

    my guess is $10000 per year for a single person
    $25000 for a family of four. And I’m kindof cheating because I’m basing this off my dear friends, a family of four, who have to live off less than this a year.

  • These are my rough estimates for Switzerland, but life here is about 20-30% more expensive.

    With $30’000 a single person in a very cheap apartment can just get by without “suffering” too much. No extras, but food, clothing, health care (which is obligatory here), rent, public transport and other random, obligatory insurances and bills. Anything below that is my opinion of true poverty (no telly, not enough food, clothes only from the second hand shops etc.).

    For a family of four, real poverty would be $40’000 and less. That’s not much of a difference in comparison to single people, but families with children get much bigger tax breaks and also automatically get larger salaries ($200 per child last time I heard). That, with being able to buy bulk and the family discounts for travelling (kids travel free up to a certain age), eligibility for rent controlled apartments etc., make it easier for a family to survive.

    I’d like to add though, that even single people with a good salary here aren’t on easy street. We fall into one of the highest tax brackets and pay proportionally much more than everyone else, so it’s usually all gone before it ever hits your account. We once figured out that while I earn a lot more than friends of mine, I’m not much better off than they are because of my tax bracket. While it’s definitely better than poverty, it gets depressing all the same.

  • Oh and I had to come back to say this child care here in Nova Scotia runs about 25.00 a day, in Ottawa it was 40.00 a day 5 years ago. Both provinces have exactly the same requirements from home child care providers and while housing is cheaper here, we pay more for utilities, food and gas. The difference in charges reflects what people can afford – there are a lot more minimum wage earners here in the Valley than Ottawa, so it “impoverishes” both of us – no one would claim I’m rolling in money doing child care – I get 50.00 a day, 75.00 a day at legal capacity. So 1500 a month compared to 2400. It makes a huge difference!

  • XUP

    This is going to be interesting since you have people from all over the place who will be giving their estimates. However, for Ottawa, I’d say a single person would need about $20,000 and a family of four – $45,000

  • Bonnie

    I’m saying 25,000 for a single, 50,000 for the family

  • oma

    It also has to take into consideration the health of the person and the province in which s/he lives. Health care can range from nothing when you are young to over 4,000 when you begin to break down. Like a car, the older we get the more it costs to maintain us :-)

    I would say that without any extras like a dog or entertainment of any kind, it would be possible to eat well and have comfortable housing for about 19,000 up here in these hills. Here you have to have a car and maintain your road as well, and the taxes and health care costs are higher than in Ontario. Add in a bit of enjoyment and it would take 22,000.

  • Em

    Wow. I have no idea. Last year, I lived pretty comfortably off a $15 000 Ontario Graduate Scholarship and a $9000 TAship, so it’s got to be a lot less than that. I am a relatively healthy, young, single female though, and have health insurance for drugs, dental, etc. I rent a one-bedroom apartment near Carleton, but don’t have a car or exciting social life.
    Family of four? No idea. I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to child-care costs (etc) in Ottawa. I’d say at least $35k.

  • I’m going to guess around $32000 annually for a single, and at least $50000 annually for a family of four.

    What are the real stats?

  • I found this link with some 2006 numbers, but they are not divided by size of community.

    This link has some stats from 2004 broken down by city size.

  • The response is excellent – thanks very much. I’m still hoping for a few more before I calculate “our” poverty line.

    Lynn, the 2006 low-income cut-offs by family size and community size (aka the poverty lines) are here.

  • Another thing – Lynn, your first link goes to the Fraser Institute’s Christopher Sarlo lines. These are more popularly known as “the one calorie above starvation” lines. 😉 Your second link goes to the Statistics Canada Low-income Cut-offs, more popularly known as Canada’s Poverty Lines.

  • I live in Manhattan ~ a studio apartment will run a person $1500 a month. I know one family of four that lives in a one bedroom apartment – that costs them $2500 a month. Those are just for basic rentals, not including utilities.

    So I’d guess a single person (willing to shove herself into a studio) would need $35,000. A family of four (I only know one!) would need $50,000 if they want to cram everyone into a one bedroom. Of course, there are probably cheaper neighborhoods – I only know the area where I live.

  • Anna

    Oakland, Ca, US
    US currency, assuming 30% tax bracket.

    18,000 for single
    36,000 family of 4

    The papers always say it’s closer to 60,000 for a family, but they lie.

  • Zoom,

    Can you explain the LICO break down by population of community? I’m looking at it and thinking that the rural/small community stuff isn’t realistic for a couple of reasons – there isn’t that much available to *rent* in rural areas, and people go from being able to depend on public transit to needing to have a vehicle and the insurance and upkeep of even the most basic used car is an expense we never ever considered living in town.

    I guess part of that though is about *choice* and if you’re living rurally it’s because you have the choice of buying a property with incredibly low property taxes more easily than renting. I mean, in my area – not my community – you can buy a trailer on a rented lot for under 20 000. For 25 000 you own the property it is on – about 2 acres, drilled well, septic, taxes that are less that 500 a year.

    The need for transportation to a job is still a major factor in rural living.

  • Katie, do the poor actually live on Manhattan Island??? I’m laughing cause to me it’s like saying ‘Well where I live in Rockcliffe Park the properties are all over 750 000 dollars…when people don’t have to live there; they can live in Vanier (which borders Rockcliffe Park – is there a fence to keep the french riffraff out??)and still find 3 bedroom apartments and houses to rent for 1200 a month.

  • sheila

    I’m guessing 20K for a single person because I’m making less than that and I’m always just a hair’s breadth away from one disconnection or another. When a single woman with no children is looking for a second job, she’s poor.

  • Why “before tax”? I would have to go to the Income Tax Act (and forget about that) to then figure out when the net was. So, I don’t have hard figures. I do have experience of living at or below the poverty line a couple of times in my life, where I practically didn’t pay any taxes at all, I made such a small amount of money. But I lived well enough. The big difference is that I had hope that I would get out of the minimum wage trap I was in (this was back in 1980 when minimum wage was like $3.20 an hour and they didn’t let you work a full 38 hours week otherwise they’d have to pay benefits). It’s the lack of hope that kills the spirit. Also, when you live paycheque to paycheque, you can’t save for anything and so you can never get ahead. That’s tough on the spirit too.

    I was also educated and I read a lot and paid attention. I had life skills so I knew what to eat to maintain my health. I didn’t smoke, didn’t buy booze, didn’t have a car (I had a bike) or even own a tv. My spending was minimal to match my income. I hardly bought anything except food. So much depends on where you live, the cost of rent, whether you have to commute, etc. etc. I would need to sit down and invent parameters to be able to give you hard figures. But I’m not going to, sorry. :)

  • Mudmama: with respect to the lower poverty lines for rural communities: I don’t know if this will help, but it’s Chapter 2 of the Canadian Fact Book on Poverty, published by the Canadian Council on Social Development. It explains how the poverty lines are calculated.

    Everybody else: I love the input, and will be back in a day or two, once all the answers are in, to chat about it some more.

  • Huh, 10 years experience working in ESL, part time and full time some months each year, and I made about $20,000 a year, sometimes not quite that. Esteemed profession wasn’t it?

  • Reagan

    For a single person – $20,000 (US dollars)
    Family of 4 – $50,000 (US dollars)

  • Hey Zoom, thanks for the extra info! This is kind of unrelated but I love the fact that you are so involved in our community. You inspire me to get involved too! A lot of the local happenings around here (such as the rally for Insite) I only hear about on your blog — never in advance. You should create a sidebar entry for upcoming local events of note!

  • Lynn, that’s an excellent idea – I’ll look into sidebar widgets and see if I can do that (this might even motivate me to upgrade to the latest version of wordpress…).

    Everybody: I haven’t forgotten to return to this thread and do something with all your input – I apologize for taking so bloody long. (I still haven’t done it, but I promise I will.)