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Record 46.2 million Americans live in poverty, Census Bureau says

September 13, 2011 |  7:43 am

Poverty
High joblessness and the weak economic recovery pushed the ranks of the poor in the U.S. to 46.2 million in 2010 -- the fourth straight increase and the largest number of people living in poverty since record-keeping began 52 years ago, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The share of all people in the U.S. who fell below the poverty line rose to 15.1% last year from 14.3% in 2009. That matched the poverty rate reached in 1993 before falling steadily to 11.3% in 2000. Since then the poverty rate has risen, accelerating after the recession began in late 2007, and is now approaching levels not seen since Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965.

Last year the share of children under 18 living in poverty jumped to 22%, from 20.7% the previous year.

The Census Bureau’s report also showed an increase in the number of people without healthcare coverage rose to 49.9 million last year from 49 million in 2009, though the percentage of uninsured was statistically unchanged. And there was a further erosion of incomes at the middle of the middle class.

Inflation-adjusted median household income in the U.S. fell 2.3% in 2010 from a year ago, to $49,445.

Taken together, the data all point to the severe and widespread financial strains of a nation in the throes of an economic crisis. And the report, coming shortly after President Obama’s proposed package of $447 billion in tax cuts and spending to revive job growth and the recovery, is almost certain to intensify the debate over the government’s role in helping the poor and unemployed at a time of budget deficits and painful cutbacks in public services. Extended federal unemployment benefits, for example, helped some people rise above the poverty line.

Analysts had widely expected the poverty rate for last year to edge higher, given that the nation’s unemployment rate averaged 9.6% in 2010 compared with 9.3% the previous year. The latest jobless figure, for August, was 9.1%.

By the Census Bureau’s latest measure, the poverty threshold last year was an income of $11,139 for one person and $22,314 for a family of four.

The government’s official poverty rate doesn’t count food-stamp benefits and low-income tax credits as income. If those programs, which totaled about $150 billion last year, were included, many more people would have been counted as being above the poverty line.

At the same time, analysts say other factors understate the real level of poverty in the U.S. Many more young adults have stayed or moved back home because they can’t find jobs, and others have doubled up with friends and relatives. Moreover, experts agree that the poverty thresholds, designed in the early 1960s, doesn’t capture people’s spending and living needs in today’s economy. 

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-- Don Lee in Washington

Photo: Radio co-hosts Tavis Smiley and Cornel West begin their "Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." Credit: Earl Gibson III / Associated Press

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