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SOBERING REALITY OF POVERTY LIES BEHIND THE GROWING NUMBERS

Those officially categorized as poor - less than $13,924 in earnings for a family of four - numbered 35.7 million, equaling 14.2 percent of the population, up from 13.5 percent in 1990, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.

But behind the numbers lies a still more sobering story: the reality of living poor.

Here are brief looks at three faces of poverty in America today.Less than a year ago, she regularly held lavish dinner parties at her home in Stamford, Conn. This week, Mrs. Loews and her three children have eaten plain pasta every night.

Loews, who asked that her first name not be used, fell from middle-class living into poverty when she and her husband separated last November.

The hardest part, she said, is telling her children they can't have designer clothes, bicycles and other luxuries that ordinary children take for granted in Connecticut, the state with the nation's highest per capita income.

"They're in the middle of a bakery and they can't touch the cake," Loews said.

Loews has worked since she was 16, mainly as a saleswoman and graphic artist. She went on welfare when it became clear her job would not bring in nearly enough money to pay the bills.

"It's degrading. You're in this position you never thought you'd be in," she said.

She lives on $1,054 a month - $842 from Aid to Families With Dependent Children and $212 in food stamps. She said her husband refuses to pay child support, but she hasn't gone to court demanding it.

Loews said she is trying to get off welfare. She went back to school in May and hopes to complete a paralegal course in about a year.

For now, she said her parents make her $275 monthly car and insurance payments and her landlord dropped her rent from $1,000 to $400. She relies on social service agencies and her church for clothing - and sometimes food.

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Jacqueline Hopkins of Raymond, Miss., was once turned down for welfare because her husband made too much money. She sees no reason to try again now that she has been laid off as a part-time cleaner at a community college.

"I'd rather work than get that little money they give you," she said. "Those people at the welfare department won't help nobody."

Her situation isn't unique in Mississippi, the state with the nation's lowest per capita income.

Hopkins, 33, said she, her husband, Wilbert, 34, and their five children, ages 5 to 16, get by on a $200 weekly paycheck from his construction job, as well as food stamps.

They live in a four-bedroom red brick house in the small town about 20 miles southwest of Jackson.

Holding her 16-month-old granddaughter as she sat on her faded, brown sofa, Hopkins said she is not bitter about her life.

"It's not that hard to me," she said. "If you do what you can for (the family), you can make it. There's no need in complaining. You just live and deal with it."

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For months now, Gloria Leon of Los Angeles hasn't received child support from her ex-husband. She doesn't know where he is. And she doesn't expect to find a job soon.

Leon, 47, a mother of three, gets by each month on a welfare check of about $550 and food stamps. Her eldest daughter left school at 14 to get a job and help the family.

Since 1981, she has raised her children alone in a one-bedroom bungalow that costs $425 a month. At first they slept on the floor. Sometimes she had nothing but tortillas, milk and beans to feed the kids.

She occasionally receives free food from a South Central Los Angeles relief agency where she volunteers 10 hours a day, five days a week.

"I feel better because I'm helping other people. But I'm tired," Leon said. "There are too many hungry people. Too many come here."

She once worked as cashier but has no job training.

"Maybe I'll go look for a job again," she said softly. "Maybe I'm too old. I don't know."