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SOCIAL PROBLEMS PLAY KEY ROLE IN RISING U.S. POVERTY STATISTICS

To blame the rising poverty statistics solely on failures in economic policy and the economy's poor performance is to ignore a vast range of other contributors.

Many possible causes, including divorce, illegal immigration, increasing numbers of elderly, narcotics, poor education and illiteracy, fall more into the category of social rather than strictly economic issues.Also to be considered is the methodology, which excludes noncash income in the form of government assistance like food stamps, and the fact that population continues to grow year to year.

The 2.1 million rise to 35.7 million Americans living in poverty came as no surprise to those who have followed other grim economic measurements over the past few years.

Statistically, the recession has ended and the economy has resumed its growth, but the rate of growth is almost imperceptibly slow and unsteady. Moreover, the recovery has not been accompanied by increases in hiring.

Income levels fell last year, and are now 5.1 percent lower than in 1989. Only of late has productivity growth, basic to spreading the wealth, been up to par. And saving and investment, also requirements of growth, have been weak.

Such economic factors have had a direct impact on the poverty figures. And, since it can be alleged that they are a consequence of unenlightened economic policy, it is likely that they will be fodder in political campaigns.

Other likely contributants to the rising poverty level might have an economic component but have little directly to do with economic governance.

Divorce and the breakup of families, especially those now headed by one rather than two wage earners, have influenced the figures. The impact of single parenthood, rising in acceptance, can also be found in the figures.

Many thousands of illegal immigrants find themselves unqualified for good-paying jobs; some even have been found working at less than the minimum wage. Most suffer from language problems. Some cannot read or write in English.

Dropouts from inner-city schools leave themselves ill-equipped for jobs. Many employers are forced to operate their own education facilities if they are to find workers.

There is also a question of whether schools are preparing young people for employment. Unskilled and untrained, many individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 can obtain only the most menial jobs in retail services.

With service jobs growing faster than jobs in manufacturing, the range of opportunity is shrinking. The mid-range of semiskilled jobs in services is smaller than in manufacturing. Good-paying service jobs require strong technical education; those without it fall into the very lowest pay scales.

Whether as cause or effect, drugs contribute heavily to unemployment and crime, and of course to poverty. Even when addicts maintain earning power, as some do, the money may go to supporting the habit rather than dependents.

Much poverty is a direct result of the economy's poor performance and perhaps to specific economic policies pursued by government. But to inject it into politics as strictly an economic issue is to ignore the causes.