New United States Census Bureau figures show that on average the earnings of Americans rose substantially last year. And, they add, slightly fewer Americans were mired in poverty. Both liberals and conservatives hailed the increase in median family income, listed at 4.2 percent after adjustment for inflation. And both viewed the much more modest improvement in the poverty rate - 13.6 percent of Americans were poor in 1986, compared with 14 percent the year earlier - as evidence that the problems of some or all poor Americans require special attention.
Overall, the figures are ``pretty much what one would expect,'' said Robert Reischauer, ``that we've had a slow but steady improvement in the economy, and that we're further and further from the depths of the recession. So we should get a small slide in the poverty population'' as a consequence. He is a senior fellow in economic studies at the liberal Brookings Institution.
The new government figures reported a 10 percent decline in the number of married couples in poverty in 1986, compared with the year before. By contrast there was no change in the number of families headed by women without husbands living in the home.
The report finds small changes in the racial composition of the poor, which it calls so small as to be statistically insignificant. It reports that there were 667,000 fewer whites in poverty last year, and 119,000 fewer Hispanics - but 55,000 more blacks.
The growth in family income, says Mr. Reischauer, ``is something we should be pretty happy about.''
``But at the same time we have persistent problems in America, one of them being the plight of the single-parent families, and the other the lack of opportunity available to the black population'' because of deficiencies in education or the number of jobs available.
Minority Americans, he says, ``are the ones who have been suffering disproportionately and continue to.'' The modest changes in poverty figures, he says, ``suggest that slow growth and moderate improvement in the economy really isn't going to meet the needs of these populations. If we want to bring the nation together, we're going to have to intervene in more substantial ways.''
Stuart Butler similarly views the new Census Bureau figures as a continuation ``of a trend since '82.'' The modest decrease in the number of Americans living in poverty, he says, ``coincides with an expansion in job opportunities in the service sector'' in recent years, which has provided work for the poor who have modest education backgrounds and job skills. Mr. Butler is director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Butler differentiates between the needs of two-parent and single-parent families who are poor. The decline in the number of two-parent families in poverty, he says, is a result of economic expansion and shows that ``what we need is a continuous expansion in the economy. That's the way to solve that problem.''
But helping single-parent families to pull themselves out of poverty is another matter. ``This is an area where we need changes in social policy and welfare policy,'' he says. ``Welfare reform should concentrate on single-parent families.''
Douglas Besharov, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that the modest reduction in the number of poor Americans is a continuation of a trend since the end of the 1981-82 recession. In recent years the high-water mark of poverty was in 1983, when 35 million Americans - 15.2 percent - were poor.