Is America increasingly looking like Gus Kahn's Tin Pan Alley description: ``The rich get rich and the poor get poorer?'' It depends whom you talk to. New Census Bureau statistics strengthen that musical description, and some analysts in effect say this is what is happening. But others flatly disagree and see slow improvement for the poor.
One point most everyone agrees on: poverty's most intractable problem continues to be families headed by single women, and the new Census figures support this view.
For the past 20 years the richest one-fifth of Americans have earned an ever-larger share of the nation's income: the new statistics report that they now earn 43.7 percent. In the same two decades the share of America's wealth that the poor and middle-class earn has been sliding.
The new figures don't show significant change in the overall number or percentage of Americans in poverty. Thirty-two and a half million Americans live below the poverty line - 13.5 percent of the population.
Slightly more than half of all these poor Americans live in female-headed households, primarily single or divorced mothers with children. Although these numbers have barely changed in the past year, the trend over the past 30 years has been for overall poverty rates to go down, reflecting less poverty among intact families, while more single and divorced mothers, and their children, are poor.
``The poverty that concerns us most in the 1980s is the poverty of divorce and illegitimacy,'' says Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute. ``And no one has come up with any remotely feasible plan to deal with this.''
Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation calls the problem of female-headed families the ``driving force behind poverty generally.'' Yet he says the new statistics indicate there may be the ``beginning of a turnaround in the poverty rate'' of these families, inasmuch as the number of poor Americans in female-headed households actually declined very slightly in 1986.
Mr. Butler calls this a ``significant development.'' Part of the reason, he suspects, is that women who are working full-time now are earning 10 percent more than they did in 1982, according to the new figures - thus enabling some who are the head of households and previously were poor to climb out of poverty.
On the other hand Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the latest figures show that the five-year-old ``economic recovery is obviously leaving many poor Americans behind,'' with the gap between rich and poor at the ``widest point recorded since 1960.''
Greenstein sees the newest data as ``especially disturbing for blacks,'' and notes that poverty among blacks rose two percent from 1986 to 1987 - from 31 to 33 percent. Forty-nine percent of young black children now live in poverty.