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1.4 million more people in poverty in 2002

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WASHINGTON — Nearly 1.4 million more people in the United States fell into poverty last year — almost half of them children — even as the country emerged from recession, according to a Census Bureau survey.

About 12.4 percent of the population, or nearly 34.8 million people, lived in poverty in 2002, according to the bureau's American Community Survey that was to be released Wednesday. That was up from 12.1 percent, or 33.4 million, in 2001.

Roughly 17.2 percent of children, or 12.2 million, lived in poverty in 2002, up from 16.4 percent, or about 11.5 million, in 2001.

Median household income rose by $51, when accounting for inflation, to $43,057 after a similarly slight drop the previous year, when the nation was in recession from March to November. Median income refers to the point at which half of households earn more and half earn less.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, blamed the increase in poverty on rising unemployment and the government's failure to promote more child tax credits for low-income families and stronger unemployment insurance.

"People at the bottom tend to live paycheck to paycheck," Greenstein said. "This underscores that in trying to stimulate the economy, we should probably be doing more to assist low-income working families affected by the downturn."

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.

However, increases in poverty in 2002 were "not out of the ordinary" for a recession, and less adverse than expected, said Sheldon Danzinger, co-director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.

Robert Rector of the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, said welfare reform helped keep more single mothers in the labor force than in previous economic downturns, and therefore, out of poverty.

"So now coming out of the recession, in terms of child poverty, it's a very optimistic picture," Rector said. "In terms of the population overall, it looks like an ordinary recession."

The American Community Survey is a questionnaire being tested by the Census Bureau as a possible yearly replacement for the 53-question "long form" sent out by the bureau at the start of each decade.

The new survey covers about 62,000 households each month nationwide. The bureau arrives at annual estimates by averaging survey results for each of the 12 months in a year.

The official government statistics on income and poverty come from a separate, more comprehensive survey that tracks economic status typically released in late September.

But Chuck Nelson, who helps oversee income and poverty statistics at the Census Bureau, said American Community Survey results still provide a glimpse into overall economic and demographic trends in the United States.

Among some other findings:

—About 6.8 million households in 2002 received Food Stamps, up from 6.4 million in 2001.

—The number of people employed in the manufacturing industry dropped by almost 5 percent, or 830,000, to under 17.1 million. There were also slight decreases in the retail trade, information, and transportation and warehousing industries.

—There was roughly a 4 percent rise in the number of people working in the fields of education, health or social services to nearly 27.1 million. An increase was also seen in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services category.

—While the poverty rate for children rose, it decline for people 65 and over, from 10.2 percent to 9.6 percent

Older Americans have become more immune to economic downturns because of Social Security, Danzinger said.

And even though the stock market swoon of recent years wiped out many retirement accounts, today's 65-and-over crowd overall have larger retirement nest-eggs from which to draw on than previous generations, he added.