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U.S. poverty rose in '90, Census says Household income in nation registered 1st drop in eight years


WASHINGTON -- For the first time in eight years, the income of a typical U.S. household dropped in 1990, and the number of people in poverty rose for the first time in seven years, the Census Bureau reported yesterday.

At the same time, the government also estimated that the number of people without health insurance rose by 1.3 million last year.

"Using all these indicators, economic well-being seems to be worse off," said Dan Weinberg, head of household statistics for the Census Bureau.

While the national poverty rate climbed from 12.8 percent to 13.5 percent last year, the bureau estimated, roughly 9.9 percent of Marylanders were living in poverty then. State officials said they weren't surprised that the Maryland poverty rate was lower than the nation's -- but that the Maryland figure was nothing to cheer about.

"It's still a very sizable percentage and a very sizable number of people," said Michael A. Lettre, assistant director of the state Office of Planning.

The Census Bureau could not say whether the Maryland rate also reflected an increase because the agency did not gather similar state data in 1989. The new figure does suggest that the percentage of Marylanders living in poverty last year was about the same as in 1980, when data were gathered, said Mark Littman, a bureau researcher.

Democrats said the new figures strengthened their case for more unemployment benefits, tax cuts for working families with children and health-care reform.

"Today's statistics are further evidence that economic policy in this country is badly off track," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee. "I hope these numbers sound an alarm at the White House."

But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, while saying he was "disturbed" by the numbers, repeated a recipe that Congress has already rejected: capital gains tax cuts. He also urged expanding individual retirement accounts and spending more on science, research and public works.

"We believe the solution to turning the poverty rate around to a downward trend is to create jobs and ensure economic growth," Mr. Fitzwater said.

The income and poverty statistics came on a day when new data showed that the recession was deeper from April to June than had been thought and that unemployment claims were still rising.

According to the Census Bureau, the median, or midpoint, household income dropped by 1.7 percent in 1990, to $29,943, a loss of $525.

Per-person income fell by $428 -- 2.9 percent -- to $14,387, also the first such drop in eight years.

The increase in the national poverty rate left 33.6 million people below the poverty line, 2.1 million more than in 1989. The poverty level for a family of four was $13,359 in 1990.

Conservatives said the Census Bureau figures distorted the image of poverty in America by focusing on income, not assets. The numbers don't take into account ownership of homes, cars and other modern-day conveniences by the poor.

But liberals pointed to new research that suggested that the United States lagged behind other Western nations in helping its poor.

The income and poverty statistics are derived from an annual survey of60,000 households. Overall, the Census Bureau found that:

* Whites and Hispanics lost ground in 1990, while blacks and Asians stayed in place. Blacks still had the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group, 31.9 percent.

* People living in metropolitan areas fared worse than those in rural areas. Household income fell 5 percent in the Northeast and 3.1 percent in the West but was steady in the South and Midwest.

* Women continued to close the earnings gap with men, but only because men's earnings dropped for the third year in a row.

* Children accounted for 40 percent of those in poverty. With a poverty rate of 20.6 percent, children were more likely to be poor than any other age group.

* The elderly were the only age group to gain in income. Shielded by Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, families with a household member over age 65 registered a 3 percent gain in income.

* Health insurance has become more scarce as the number of uninsured rose from 33.4 million in 1989 to 34.7 million 1990.

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