For poor, hard times get harder

Poverty rate rises for second straight year, highlighting a stall in long-term progress.

Thirty-nine years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared the "War Against Poverty."

"This nation of abundance can surely afford to do it," he declared in his 1964 economic report.

His war had some initial success. The proportion of Americans living below the official poverty level fell from 19 percent in 1964 to 11.1 percent in 1973.

Since then, though, the United States has not made much progress in lifting its least fortunate into better living standards. Nor, some experts say, is much change likely in the next few years without specific, expanded government antipoverty measures.

"We need more than an economic recovery," says Sheldon Danziger, a poverty expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The Census Bureau reported Friday that the poverty rate in 2002 rose to 12.1 percent from 11.7 percent the year before. In good measure, the blame lies with a slow economy that has failed to create jobs even as it recovers from a mild 2001 slump.

But given the up-and-down pattern of poverty since 1973, some experts say broader efforts in areas ranging from metro-area housing to rural development may be needed to put a long-term dent in the problem.

In all, the number of people below the official poverty line increased by 1.7 million in 2002, to 34.6 million, including 12.1 million children. Blacks, married couples, suburbanites, and Midwesterners saw big jumps.

The Bureau also reported that median household income fell by $491, or 1.1 percent, to $42,409. Half of households have higher incomes, half have lower.

Last year was the second in a row that poverty increased and median incomes fell. Poverty was 11.3 percent in 2000 - a low point after the economic boom of the late 1990s gave low-wage workers a sizable boost in income. Median income is down $1,439 over the past two years.

Despite overall gains in living standards for 30 years, poverty has not declined. "Rather shocking," says Mr. Danziger. "No [president] since Johnson has said we are going to make poverty reduction our priority."

Nor is today's recovery, now showing signs of picking up speed, likely to reduce poverty quickly. Rather, poverty is probably up again this year, says Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington think tank. That's because the number of long-term unemployed has risen sharply.

With an election next year, the new Census Bureau statistics set off a contest of comments. Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island declared the Census Bureau numbers show that under President Bush living standards of American families are "deteriorating unacceptably" - including for half a million children.

But Robert Rector, a researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, maintains that children have weathered this recession better than in the slumps of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In those earlier recessions, numbers of children in poverty rose 2.5 percent; in this period, 0.5 percent. He credits welfare reform, noting that it forced single mothers to go to work - and most of them kept their jobs.

Others note that the 2001 recession was milder and shorter than most. Rep. Jim Saxton (R) of Nebraska stated that, despite the recession, terrorist attacks, and wars, a comprehensive measure of household income "has not plunged." And tax relief has "provided a boost" to household income as well as the economy.

Mr. Greenstein, though, holds that "misplaced priorities by Congress and the president are making the increase in poverty larger than it needs to be."

Unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless are worse than after the slump in the early 1990s, and low-income working families have been excluded from the increased child tax credit benefits that went to better-off families this summer, he notes. The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 1997.

Moreover, the gap between the rich and poor more than doubled from 1979 to 2000, recent data from the Congressional Budget Office indicate, to probably the widest it has been in 70 years.

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