- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor remain stuck at a record 15 percent, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.

Roughly 46.2 million people remained below the poverty line in 2011, unchanged from 2010. The figure is the highest in more than a half-century.

And while joblessness is persistently high, the gap between rich and poor increased in the last year. The top 1 percent of wage earners had a 6 percent increase in income, while income at the bottom 40 percent of earners was basically unchanged, said David Johnson, the chief of the Census Bureau’s household economics division.

“A lot of the increase is driven by changes at the very top of the distribution,” Mr. Johnson said.

The report comes less than two months before the November presidential election, and the still-weak U.S. economy is the top issue for voters deciding between the leading candidates, President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

Experts earlier predicted a fourth straight annual rise in the poverty rate, but dwindling unemployment benefits and modest job gains helped to keep that from happening.

“This is good news and a surprise,” said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan economist who closely tracks poverty. He pointed to a continuing boost from new unemployment benefits passed in 2009 that gave workers up to 99 weeks of payments after layoffs and didn’t run out for many people until late 2011. Also, job gains in the private sector helped offset cuts in state and local government workers.

“It would indicate the stimulus was even more effective than believed,” he said.

The overall poverty rate was statistically unchanged from the 15.1 percent in the previous year. The figure is the highest since 1983.

The median, or midpoint, household income was $50,054 — 1.5 percent lower than 2010 and a second straight decline.

The census report provides a mixed picture of the economic well-being of U.S. households for 2011, when the unemployment rate improved to 8.9 percent from 9.6 percent in the previous year.

For last year, the official poverty line was an annual income of $23,021 for a family of four.

Broken down by state, New Mexico had the highest share of poor people, at 22.2 percent, according to rough calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia.

On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest, at 7.6 percent.

Bruce D. Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago, said it was disappointing that poverty levels did not improve. He described it as a sign of lingering problems in the labor market, even with recent declines in unemployment.

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