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What a dollar buys, where

Poverty | Poverty is real, but it's also relative

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Poverty is real, but it's also relative. A person living in poverty in the United States, for example, typically has far more material possessions than a person living in poverty in Europe.

Wealth within the United States is also relative. Several media outlets have noted that recent Census statistics show the suburbs around Washington, D.C., emerging as the wealthiest places in the nation. The three wealthiest counties are all in the Washington area, as are 14 of the richest 100 counties. Loudoun County, Va., tops the list with a median household income of $107,207.

While the measurement captures a real movement of wealth to the Washington suburbs, it also says less than it seems to say: The measurement gauges median income, but the same income cannot buy the same standard of living everywhere. Almost everything costs more in Washington than in Wasilla.

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The metro area around the nation's capital doesn't have the highest cost of living in the country. Los Angeles is a bit costlier, for instance, and New York City is far costlier. But Washington does have a significantly higher cost of living than most other metropolitan areas. A couple earning about $78,000 per year in nearby Richmond, Va., would have to make $100,000 to have the same standard of living in the Washington metro area. For many other metro areas, the disparity with Washington is even greater.

The large expansion of government under President Bush is giving way to an even larger expansion under President Obama. That means the lobbyists, lawyers, and civil servants in Washington's suburbs are only going to get richer, mostly at the expense of the rest of the country. But when stacking up your income against theirs, remember that apples and oranges don't always compare well.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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