Friday, September 26, 2003

The poverty level rose and median household income dipped for a second year in a row last year, new U.S. Census Bureau data show.

The new figures “reflect the effect” of the 2001 recession and are similar in scope to those seen after previous recessions, said Daniel Weinberg, chief of the bureau’s division of housing and household economic statistics.

The poverty rate for 2002 was 12.1 percent, up from 11.7 percent in 2001, the bureau said yesterday in its annual poverty and income reports.

The number of people living in poverty rose 1.7 million from 32.9 million to 34.6 million. The poverty threshold for a family of four in 2002 was $18,392.

Median household income fell $491, from $42,900 in 2001 to $42,409 last year.

Republicans credited the 1996 welfare law for raising women’s earnings and preventing more children from falling into poverty.

The 2002 child poverty rate of 16.7 percent was statistically unchanged from 16.3 percent in 2001, noted Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican.

Census data also show that median earnings for women who work full time rose 11.6 percent in 2002, said Mr. Herger. This is significantly faster than the 7.5 percent rise in earnings for men who work full time.

Moreover, female-headed households with no husband present — a group that represents many welfare recipients — saw their median real money income increase from $28,590 in 2001 to $29,001 in 2002, said Mr. Herger.

However, Democrats and antipoverty groups seized the opportunity to denounce Bush administration policies.

“Under President Clinton, poverty declined for seven years in a row. Now we see poverty rising again,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat.

How can the United States afford to “occupy nations a half a world away and pay billions to rebuild there,” when working families are suffering here, asked Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.

Deborah Weinstein of the Coalition on Human Needs said, “Families need to be protected from poverty more than millionaires need thousands more in tax cuts.”

Yesterday, the Census Bureau presented poverty data using several experimental models, most of which count money income plus the value of noncash items, such as health care or welfare benefits.

These experimental models showed little or no change in poverty from 2001 to 2002; one model, which counts the value of noncash items plus home equity, put the nation’s poverty rate at 7.5 percent.

“Additional research on measuring economic well-being is under way,” said Mr. Weinberg, adding that the Office of Management and Budget will ultimately decide on a new poverty measure.

Other highlights of the reports:

• Blacks were the only racial group to see a higher poverty rate, rising 1.4 percent to 24.1 percent.

• The Midwest was the only region to see a higher poverty rate, rising 0.9 percent to 10.3 percent.

• Incomes fell for blacks and Hispanics, but not for whites or Asians.

• Incomes fell in the District and 10 states, but rose in one state — Oklahoma.

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