Over 1 in 4 Latinos in Poverty, Census says

Over 1 in 4 Latinos live in poverty and nearly 1 in 6 Americans do as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions still struggling and out of work.

According to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday, the number of Latinos in poverty increased from 25.3 percent to 26.6 percent, according to the US Census, as the ranks of the nation's poor swell overall to a record 46.2 million.

The figures offer a somber snapshot of the economic well-being of U.S. households for last year when joblessness hovered above 9 percent for a second year. The rate is still 9.1 percent at the start of an election year that's sure to focus on the economy and President Barack Obama's stewardship of it.

The overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent, from 14.3 percent the previous year, and the rate from 2007-2010 rose faster than for any similar period since the early 1980s when a crippling energy crisis amid government cutbacks contributed to inflation, spiraling interest rates and unemployment. For last year, the official poverty level was an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.

Measured by total numbers, the 46 million now living in poverty are the most on record dating back to when the census began to track in 1959. The 15.1 percent tied the level of 1993 and was the highest since 1983.

Broken down by state, Mississippi had the highest share of poor people, at 22.7 percent, according to calculations by the Census Bureau. It was followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. On the other end of the scale, New Hampshire had the lowest share, at 6.6 percent.

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Housing Market Widens Gap

The pursuit of the American dream through the purchase of a new home has now proven to be a major factor into the largest wealth gap between white and minority Americans in over 25 years.

When the housing market collapsed, so did Latino wealth.

The new Census numbers come on the heels of a Pew Hispanic Research Study released in July which found that Latinos accounted for the largest single decline in wealth of any racial or ethnic group during the U.S. recession.

Two-thirds of Hispanics' median net worth in 2005 came from home equity. Median home equity for Hispanics fell by 51 percent in the period of the survey.

The recession and uneven recovery have sent the wealth gap between whites and minorities to their widest level in over a quarter century. An analysis of new Census data shows that whites on average now have 18 times the net worth of Latinos and 20 times that of blacks.

The Worst Yet to Come?

Bruce Meyer, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, cautioned that the worst may be yet to come in poverty levels, citing in part continued rising demand for food stamps this year as well as "staggeringly high" numbers in those unemployed for more than 26 weeks. He noted that more than 6 million people are in the category of long-term unemployed and more likely to fall into poverty, accounting for more than two out of five currently out of work.

The latest numbers, which cover Obama's second year in office, offer political fodder for both parties as Obama seeks to push a new $447 billion plan for creating jobs and stimulating the economy. The plan includes a proposed Social Security payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits.

Obama is urging Congress to pay for the new spending largely by increasing taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans have emphatically rejected.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau also noted the impact of government safety-net programs on the poor. It estimated that new unemployment benefits passed in 2009 — which gave workers up to 99 weeks of payments after layoffs, and didn't run out for most people until this year — lifted 3.2 million above the poverty line. Social Security kept about 20.3 million — seniors as well as working-age adults receiving disability payments — out of poverty.

"If these programs are cut back in the future, poverty rates are likely to rise even more," Meyer said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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