USA

Consumer confidence plunged in September as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 exacerbated Americans' concerns about the already-slowing US economy, the Conference Board reported. Its widely quoted index sank to 97.6 from a revised 114.0 in August, the largest monthly point drop since 1990. The slide supports economists' predictions that the US has slipped into recession. The index is based on a monthly survey of 5,000 households and compares results with its base year, 1985, when it stood at 100. (Story, page 1.)

The Air Line Pilots Association was pressing for federal legislation that would allow its members to carry firearms in the cockpits of commercial planes as a way to prevent hijackings. Union president Duane Woerth said the idea, while radical, is widely supported by member pilots. The union said such a program would be voluntary and would require extensive background checks and psychological tests.

Investigators said they believed the terrorists who hijacked four commercial jets Sept. 11 may have received inside help from airport employees. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered background checks of all airline, airport, and contract workers with access to commercial planes and secure areas. Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashcroft said some suspects tied to the attacks had sought licenses to transport hazardous materials. Ashcroft said authorities have arrested or detained 352 people to date in their investigation of the attacks; 392 others are wanted for questioning.

In further moves to solidify international support in the global hunt for terrorists, the Senate approved a free-trade agreement with Jordan before King Abdullah's visit to Washington later this week. In addition, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would pay $582 million in US back dues to the UN after Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the international organization to play a major role in the fight against terrorism. The measure had already passed in the Senate.

The Supreme Court said it will take up the issue of whether voucher programs supported by President Bush that use tax money to pay student tuition at religious schools are constitutional. The justices agreed to review an appeals-court ruling that struck down a private school voucher program in Cleveland that gave students up to $2,500 each to attend other private or public schools if their own were failing. An appeals court ruled the program violated constitutional requirements of separation of church and state. (Story, page 2.)

The US poverty rate decreased to 11.3 percent of the population last year while American household income fell slightly, the Census Bureau reported. Nationwide, it said, 31.1 million Americans lived in poverty, down from 32.3 million - or 11.8 percent of the population in 1999. Since 1993, poverty rates have declined along most racial, ethnic, and age groups. The median household income last year was $42,148, the bureau said. Accounting for inflation, that's down slightly from $42,187 the previous year.

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