The number of Americans living in poverty grew by 1.7 million last year, according to new estimates by the Census Bureau.

The new report, the Current Population Survey, is considered more accurate than preliminary figures released three weeks ago and is used by the government to calculate unemployment and set economic policies.

According to the study, released Friday on the Internet, the nation’s official poverty rate rose to 12.1 percent in 2002, up from 11.7 percent the year before. About 34.6 million Americans lived in poverty, according to the official numbers.

Median household income fell 1.1 percent, meanwhile, to $42,409 in 2002, and household income after taxes slipped 0.8 percent.

It was the second straight year for unemployment to rise and median income to fall. Alternate measures of poverty, meanwhile, were a mixed bag, with some showing poverty on the rise and others indicating no change.

Officials attributed the trend to the recession that economists say started in May 2001 and ended in November of that year.

According to the report, about 9.6 percent of American families live below the poverty level of $18,392 in annual income for a family of four, increasing from 13.4 million to 14.1 million between 2001 and 2002.

Just under 5 percent of the population, 14.1 million people, were classified as being in “severe” poverty, with incomes half or less of their threshold. Another 12.5 million, or 4.4 percent, are counted as “near poor,” earning between 100 percent and 125 percent of the poverty threshold.

Poverty hit hardest in the Midwest, the only region to show an increased poverty rate, up 0.9 percent to 10.3 percent. The highest poverty rate is in the South, where it remained unchanged in the new figures at 13.8 percent.

Democrats accused the Bush administration of trying to hide bad news by releasing the poverty estimates on a Friday, when fewer Americans would likely pay attention to them because they are looking forward to a weekend.

“Sounds like they’re trying to bury the numbers where people won’t find them,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told The Associated Press. “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 told the AP that the figures were supposed to be released Tuesday, but the time change was motivated not by politics but because statisticians asked for more time to process the numbers.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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