The ranks of Americans living in poverty grew by nearly 1.4 million last year, according to new statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The percentage of Americans living below the poverty line increased to 12.4 percent in 2002, up from 12.1 percent in 2001 and representing nearly 34.8 million people, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

More than 17 percent of children under 18 lived in poverty, according to the report. Poverty among senior citizens, meanwhile, declined to 9.6 percent from 10.2 percent in 2001. Analysts say that while many retirees lost funds in the stock market in recent years, today’s 65-and-over population has larger retirement savings than in previous generations.

Poverty rates were highest in urban areas and the rural South.

Nearly one in five residents of Mississippi (19.9 percent) was below the poverty line last year, an increase of 4 percent. Other high-poverty states were New Mexico, 18.9 percent; Louisiana, 18.8 percent; District of Columbia, 17.5 percent; West Virginia, 17.2 percent; Alabama, 16.6 percent; Kentucky, 15.6 percent; Texas, 15.6 percent; Arkansas, 15.3 percent; and Oklahoma, 15 percent.

Hidalgo County, Texas, in the Rio Grande delta, topped a listing of poor counties with a poverty rate of 36.2 percent, up 4 percent from last year.

“The likelihood of being poor continues to be much higher in rural areas than in metropolitan ones,” said Gary Farley, partner in the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Carrollton, Ala., and columnist for Much rural poverty is the result of people whose heritage is farm labor being “left behind” by modernization of agriculture, he said. Farley said a lot of urban poverty since World War II is also linked to rural poverty, as displaced farm laborers moved to cities seeking work and wound up in inner-city ghettos.

Farley said pockets of persistent rural poverty include depleted coal fields of Appalachia, the old Cotton Belt in the Southeast, the Mississippi Delta, Rio Grande Valley and Indian reservations across the West.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship works alongside residents in 20 of the nation’s poorest counties, as identified in 1999, to improve their quality of life. Most, if not all, are rural, said Tom Prevost, who heads the poverty initiative called Partners in Hope.

Prevost said “there are no quick fixes” to rural poverty, but one of the program’s aims is to provide opportunities for churches and individuals to build relationships with impoverished people and thereby experience “a changed worldview and a changed God view” concerning poverty.

“We are already seeing this spillover effect among our people,” he said.

Median household income last year was $43,056, up from $42,317 the year before, according to the Census Bureau. The number of households receiving food stamps increased 400,000 to 6.8 million. Manufacturing jobs dropped nearly 5 percent, to under 17.1 million.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal group, blamed the increase in poverty on rising unemployment and the government’s failure to help low-income families.

“People at the bottom tend to live paycheck to paycheck,” Greenstein said, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

But the Heritage Foundation warned against derailing welfare reform, which the conservative think tank says is helping the economy. Calling the numbers “fairly predictable” in a slowing economy, economist Stuart Butler said the key to strengthening the economy is to “take the necessary steps to encourage people to move back into the work force, plus making sure we don’t do anything to weaken the welfare reforms put in place some years ago,” he said, according to The New York Times.

While economists say the 2001 recession ended last November, U.S. unemployment rates continue to rise. About 9 million Americans are unemployed, and 2.5 million workers have lost jobs in the last three years.

President Bush announced on Labor Day that he was creating a high-level manufacturing czar to help boost factory jobs.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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