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More Floridians fall below poverty level

With lower incomes and increased poverty, the state trend mirrors the rest of the nation.

By Wire services
Published September 27, 2003

An increase in Florida's poverty rate and a decrease in the state's median income mirrors what happened on a national level, according to 2002 figures released Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state's poverty rate from 2001 to 2002 increased 0.8 percentage points to 12.6 percent. That means more than 2-million of Florida's 16.7-million residents live in poverty.

The state's median household income, the level at which half of Floridians earn more money and half earn less, dropped 3.3 percent, or about $1,276, to $37,512.

At the same time, the national poverty rate increased from 11.7 percent to 12.1 percent. The number of people living in poverty rose 1.7-million to 34.6-million.

Household income nationwide declined 1.1 percent, to $42,409.

Official poverty rates ranged from about 5.6 percent in New Hampshire and Minnesota, to about 18 percent in West Virginia, Arkansas and several other states. In general terms, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children is $18,244.

Aside from the overall negative picture painted by Friday's figures, African-Americans, depending on how they were defined, saw a poverty rate increase of between 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent - the only group posting a significant change.

As a group, Asians, depending on the racial definition, saw household income drop from between 2.7 percent and 3.3 percent.

Presidential candidates wasted little time pinning the bad news on President Bush's management of the economy.

"This is sad news that the Bush administration is trying to sweep under the rug," Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said in a statement. "I'd like to hear President Bush explain to all the single mothers with kids living in poverty how his tax breaks for the rich are helping them."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said in a statement, "Under George Bush, the single largest state in America - about as large as California - is now the state of poverty. That's a national scandal, and as president, I'll reverse this dramatic slide down the ladder of opportunity."

Household income figures are pretty much in line with those expected after a recession like the one that ended November 2001, said Daniel Weinberg, chief of the Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division.

But Isaac Shapiro, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the current indicators are "lagging worse than in prior recessions," as evidenced by the continuing job losses in the past several months.

Gary Burtless, senior economic studies fellow with the Brookings Institution, said that, when compared to previous recessions, full-time workers who have held on to their jobs have seen increased wages to the tune of about 1.4 percent for men and 1.8 percent for women.

But that may not insulate Bush from political fallout.

"I think the the Democrats are going to be reminding people, "Look, this guy gave us a recession, and we're still in a job market recession. We didn't have any recession under Bill Clinton,"' Burtless said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan addressed the census figures with reporters Friday.

"I think, one, that the numbers do reflect the economic slowdown that we have been through and the unemployment situation," he said. "Unemployment is a lagging indicator. But let me remind you that the action that we have taken to boost the economy and to create jobs is essential to turning this around."

On the state level, Warren May, a spokesman for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the Republican administration was "not really surprised" by the census report. The blow dealt to travel and tourism by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "really hit us hard," May said.

Job creation is on the rise in Florida since the period examined by the census report, and state officials are focused on providing employment for people coming off of welfare "so they can remain self-sustaining," May said.

For the first time, the Census Bureau's annual report included alternative measures of income and poverty that take into account taxes and the value of noncash benefits, such as food stamps.

Three of the four measures showed no significant change in median household income, while one, which figures money income minus taxes, showed a 0.8 percent decline. All six alternative measures for poverty showed no statistically significant changes between 2001 and 2002.

- Information from Cox News Service and Associated Press was used in this report.

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