WASHINGTON – Poverty rose and income levels declined in 2002 for the second straight year as the nation's economy continued struggling after the first recession in a decade, the Census Bureau (search) reported Friday.
The poverty rate was 12.1 percent last year, up from 11.7 percent in 2001. Nearly 34.6 million people lived in poverty, about 1.7 million more than the previous year.
Median household income (search) declined 1.1 percent between 2001 and 2002 to $42,409, after accounting for inflation. That means half of all households earned more than that amount, and half earned less.
The poverty rate rose again after having fallen for nearly a decade to 11.3 percent in 2000, its lowest level in more than 25 years. Income levels increased through most of the 1990s, then were flat in 2000 and fell the last two years.
Bill Spriggs, director of research and public policy at the National Urban League (search), said the numbers were frightening. "This may become one of the worst downturns in income in 30 years," he said. "We see that people are digging themselves deeper into poverty because the economy is not generating jobs."
Experts had predicted that rising unemployment last year and the still shaky economy would increase poverty and lower income for most people, even though the recession officially ended in November 2001.
Bureau statistician Daniel Weinberg said the changes between 2001 and 2002 were consistent with changes following past recessions.
"The highest point in the cycle of poverty and the lowest point in income tend to come in the year after a recession," he said at a news conference at bureau headquarters in Suitland, Md.
In 2002, 12.1 million children were in poverty, or 16.7 percent of all kids, up from 11.7 million, or 16.3 percent, the previous year. The Census Bureau said the increase in the child poverty rate was not statistically significant.
The estimates, calculated annually by the Census Bureau, came from a survey of 78,000 households taken in March. They are the government's official measure of income and poverty.
Comparing poverty rates and income for racial and ethnic groups was more difficult in 2002 because the Census Bureau for the first time allowed survey respondents to report if they were of more than one race.
For instance, the poverty rate for blacks in 2002 ranged from 23.9 percent for those who identified themselves as being black and another race, to 24.1 percent for those who selected only black.
Measured either way, the bureau considered that a significant increase from 2001, when 22.7 percent of blacks lived in poverty.
Poverty rates remained relatively unchanged for non-Hispanic whites, Asians and Hispanics, the bureau said.
Median income fell for blacks and Hispanics, but was relatively unchanged for whites. Income was highest among whites and Asians.
Incomes also declined significantly for foreign-born non-citizens, people living in metropolitan areas and for family households. By region, the Midwest experienced a significant decline, while all other regions were relatively unchanged.
The poverty threshold differs by the size and makeup of a household. For instance, a person under 65 living alone in 2002 was considered in poverty if income was $9,359 or less; for a household of three including one child, it was $14,480.
A separate Census Bureau survey released earlier this month also showed more people living in poverty in 2002, along with a slight increase in median income. However, that survey did not ask as detailed a series of questions on people's financial status.
Even before the data was made public, House Democrats charged the Bush administration was trying to hide bad economic news by releasing the numbers on a Friday when people are paying more attention to the upcoming weekend. In previous years, the estimates were released on a Tuesday or Thursday.
"Sounds like they're trying to bury the numbers where people won't find them," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (search), D-N.Y. "This is another clear example of political manipulation of data by the Bush administration to avoid the glare of public scrutiny about the country's worsening economy."
Census Bureau spokesman Larry Neal said the time change wasn't politically motivated. It was originally scheduled to be released this past Tuesday, he said, but was moved to Friday because statisticians asked for more time to process the numbers.
"These are the official estimates of income and poverty in America and every debate on income and poverty for the next year will rehash them," Neal said. "The notion that we should, could or would suppress these numbers doesn't pass the laugh test."