Numbers in Poverty Up; Minorities Hardest Hit As Wealth Disparity Widens

According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, 2.6 million more Americans fell into poverty in 2010; the 46.2 million people in poverty signaled both "the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published." The report also contained disturbing news regarding the middle class: the New York Times writes that "median household incomes fell last year to levels last seen in 1997."

Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, dubbed the period "a lost decade." He told the Times that this "was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period," and he went so far as to say that "the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s." Adjusted for inflation, the median household income dropped to $49,445, a decline of 2.3 percent and seven percent below the high of $53,252 in 1999.

15.1 percent of Americans were below the poverty line ($22,314 for a family of four) last year, the highest percentage since 1993. And as the Times points out, the gap between the wealthy and poor continued to grow: "Median household income for the bottom tenth of the income spectrum fell by 12 percent from a peak in 1999, while the top 90th percentile dropped by just 1.5 percent."

The rising poverty rate was most severe for blacks and Hispanics. 27 percent of blacks were in poverty in 2010, up from 25 percent in 2009, and 26 percent of Hispanics--up from 25 percent in 2009--were also below the line. 9.9 percent of whites were in poverty in 2010, as compared with 9.4 percent in 2009. Among Asians, however, the poverty rate remained steady at 12.1 percent.

According to the Times, most economists agree that "joblessness was the main culprit pushing more Americans into poverty." And with President Obama recently proposed jobs bill, analysts say the Census report could swing support either way. As the Times reports, "the bleak numbers could help [Obama] make his case for urgency...[b]ut they could also be used against him by Republican opponents seeking to highlight economic shortcomings on his watch."

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