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Below the line: Poverty in America

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A presidential election year only makes the issue of the haves and have-nots more divisive. President Obama took heat for admonishing entrepreneurs that their businesses relied on tax-supported infrastructure and that "You didn't build that." Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been caught up in controversy over his statements at a fundraiser that nearly half of Americans don't pay income tax and "feel entitled" to government "handouts."

Americans know poverty exists and may agree on its broadest outlines, but when it gets down to the specifics, they often can't agree on exactly who "the poor" are.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released the latest official poverty figures, putting the number of poor people at 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population. That's the same as the previous year – meaning the United States has sustained, for the second year in a row, the biggest increase in poverty since the government started keeping poverty records in 1969.

But what do these numbers tell us? And what are they used for? And what – and who – might they leave out?

The most obvious conclusion is that the nation is still dealing with consequences of the Great Recession. After the economic crisis, "of course poverty's going to go up," says Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "It didn't go up because people are working less or aren't working harder. It's that there aren't enough … decent-paying jobs out there."

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