A new U.S. census report reveals the alarming news that nearly 1 in 2 Americans have fallen into poverty or have earnings that would classify them as low income.

About 97.3 million Americans now fall into a low-income category, commonly defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level, the census reports.

Together with the 49.1 million who fall below the poverty line and are counted as poor, they number 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population.

The census report reflects the new measure of poverty which takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs as well as taxes. This account pushed the number of people living below 200 percent of the poverty level up from the 104 million or 1 in 3 million Americans that was officially reported in September.

Broken down by race and ethnicity, Hispanics had the highest percentage in poverty at 73 percent, followed by Blacks, Asians and non-Hispanic whites.

The Associated Press reported that “The latest census data depict a middle class that’s shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.”

While the recession that began in late 2007 has had a devastating effect on American families, paychecks for low-income families have been shrinking for decades while wages for the rich have been climbing.

The inflation-adjusted average earnings for the bottom 20 percent of families have fallen from $16,788 in 1979 to just under $15,000, and earnings for the next 20 percent have remained flat at $37,000. In contrast, earnings for the top 5 percent of families have climbed 64 percent to more than $313,000 since 1979.

Mayors across the country are citing the challenges of meeting increased demands for food assistance and are expressing concerns about possible cuts to federal programs such as food stamps and programs to assist low-income pregnant women.

“People who never thought they would need food are in need of help,” said Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri, who co-chairs a mayor’s task force on hunger and homeless.

The new report on poverty comes at a time when lawmakers are considering drastic cuts in government jobs and safety net programs and the major entitlements of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Unfortunately too many of the country’s elected officials either are condescending or disparaging of the poor. In campaign speeches they often talk with nostalgia about the middle class as in a time warp.

Too many of the nation’s elected officials have ignored the fact that the middle class they speak so fondly of is increasingly being squeezed and pushed into poverty.

Lawmakers need to act with a sense of urgency to address the growing problem of poverty and economic inequality.

(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune)

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