Poverty rate up, income down

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - For a second consecutive year, the nation's official poverty rate rose significantly, while median household income dropped, according to 2002 figures released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

From 2001 to 2002, the poverty rate increased from 11.7 percent to 12.1 percent. The number of people living in poverty rose 1.7 million to 34.6 million. Household income nationwide declined 1.1 percent, to $42,409.

Maryland, along with Minnesota and Alaska, ranked as one of the three most affluent states, with a three-year average median income of $55,912 per household for 2000-2002. Not surprisingly, it also had the third-lowest poverty rate - 7.3 percent. Only New Hampshire and Minnesota were lower.

The data jibed with new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed Maryland added 22,500 jobs from 2000 through 2002. Over the period, employment nationwide shrank by 1.1 percent.

Pradeep Ganguly, chief economist for the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state's relatively light dependence on manufacturing helped Maryland weather the recession. While the average state gets 14 percent of its jobs from manufacturing, less than 7 percent of Maryland jobs are tied to the sector.

Georgia's median household income dropped about 0.9 percent to $43,096, a $408 difference. The state's poverty rate fell about half a percent, to 12.1 percent. Neither of the changes was considered statistically significant.

Florida was one of only five states that saw both a rise in the poverty rate and a drop in income. The state's poverty rate increased 0.8 percent, to 12.1, and the median household income dropped 3.3 percent, or about $1,276.

Ohio's median household income fell a significant 2.5 percent.

In general terms, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children is $18,244.

Aside from the overall negative picture painted by yesterday's figures, blacks, depending on how they were defined, saw a poverty rate increase of between 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent - the only group posting a significant change.

As a group, Asians, depending on the racial definition, saw household income drop from between 2.7 percent to 3.3 percent.

Presidential candidates wasted little time pinning the bad news on President Bush's management of the economy.

"This is sad news that the Bush administration is trying to sweep under the rug," Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, said in a statement. "I'd like to hear President Bush explain to all the single mothers with kids living in poverty how his tax breaks for the rich are helping them."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement: "Under George Bush, the single largest state in America - about as large as California - is now the state of poverty. That's a national scandal, and as president, I'll reverse this dramatic slide down the ladder of opportunity."

Household income figures are pretty much in line with those expected after a recession like the one that ended November 2001, said Daniel Weinberg, chief of the Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division.

But Isaac Shapiro, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the indicators are "lagging worse than in prior recessions," as evidenced by the continuing job losses in the past several months.

Gary Burtless, senior economic studies fellow with the Brookings Institution, said that, when compared with previous recessions, full-time workers who have held on to their jobs have seen increased wages to the tune of about 1.4 percent for men and 1.8 percent for women.

But that might not insulate Bush from political fallout.

"I think the Democrats are going to be reminding people, 'Look, this guy gave us a recession, and we're still in a job market recession. We didn't have any recession under Bill Clinton,'" Burtless said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan addressed the census figures with reporters yesterday.

"I think, one, that the numbers do reflect the economic slowdown that we have been through and the unemployment situation," he said. "Unemployment is a lagging indicator. But let me remind you that the action that we have taken to boost the economy and to create jobs is essential to turning this around."

On the state level, Warren May, a spokesman for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the Republican administration was "not really surprised" by the census report.

The blow dealt to travel and tourism by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "really hit us hard," May said.

Job creation is on the rise in Florida since the period examined by the census report, and state officials are focused on providing employment for people coming off welfare "so they can remain self-sustaining," May said.

For the first time, the Census Bureau's annual report included alternative measures of income and poverty that take into account taxes and the value of noncash benefits, such as food stamps.

Three of the four measures showed no significant change in median household income, while one, which figures money income minus taxes, showed a 0.8 percent decline. All six alternative measures for poverty showed no statistically significant changes between 2001-2002.

Sun staff members contributed to this article.

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