The New York Times

Number of People Living in Poverty in U.S. Increases Again


WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 — The Census Bureau reported today that the number of Americans living in poverty jumped by 1.7 million people last year, the second year in a row the number has increased, and that median household income declined.

It was the first time since the early 1990's that there have been negative changes in poverty and incomes in two consecutive years.

The data, results of the Census Bureau's annual Current Population Survey, the official barometer for measuring income and poverty rates, showed that lingering negative effects of the recent recession cut across a broad swath of the population.

The official poverty rate rose to 12.1 percent in 2002 from 11.7 percent the year before, bringing to total number of people living below the poverty line to 34.6 million. The median earned income of the nation's households fell about $500 over the same period, to $42,409.

The worsening economic conditions fell heavily in the Midwest and among Hispanics — two areas President Bush considers key to his re-election. And the figures prompted an immediate and widespread political response and could harm the president's already declining public approval ratings. Within hours of this morning's release of the data, Democrats seized on the figures to criticize Bush administration's policies in a flurry of faxed press releases, e-mailed statements and blustery condemnations at news conferences.

"This is sad news that the Bush administration is trying to sweep under the run," said Senator John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat who is seeking his party's presidential nomination. "I'd like to hear President Bush explain to all the single mothers with kids living in poverty how his tax breaks for the rich are helping them."

The White House responded to the Census Bureau's report by noting that a report today on the nation's gross domestic product showed stronger-than-expected growth in the second quarter.

Conservative policy analysts also pointed out that the increase in poverty over the last two years has not been as severe as that in the aftermath of past recent recessions. "As recessions go, this is extremely good news," said Robert E. Rector, Senior Research Fellow with the Heritage Foundation. "I would attribute that to the mildness of the recession itself and the impact of welfare reform in keeping women in the work force."

Among areas of the country, the Midwest was particularly hard hit, with incomes declining 2 percent, a factor likely caused by a loss in manufacturing jobs.

Among racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans fared the worst last year, with a loss in median income of 3 percent and an increase in poverty to 24.1 percent from 22.7 percent a year earlier.

And though rates of poverty did not change significantly last year for those under age 18 and over age 65, staying afloat was harder last year for people aged 18 to 64 — the bulk of the work force.

The poverty rate for single mothers, at 26.5 percent, remained virtually unchanged from 2001. The poverty rate did increase, however, among married couples to 5.3 percent from 4.9 percent a year earlier, a fact that could provide fodder to critics of marriage incentive programs.

The number of entire families living below the poverty line increased to 9.6 percent last year, from 9.2 percent.

The census bureau also reported a slight increase in poverty rates for children, to 16.7 percent last year from 16.3 percent the year before.

The official poverty levels, updated each year to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index, were $18,392 for a family of four, $14,348 for a family of three, $11,756 for a two-person household and $9,183 for an individual.

Incomes declined for all racial and ethnic groups except for non-Hispanic white and Asian households, the Census Bureau said.

Incomes also declined for foreign-born non-citizens.

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