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For poor, hard times get harder

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

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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."


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