Religious Leaders Deplore Rise in Poverty

Christian advocates for the poor voiced alarm over new figures showing that 1.3 million Americans slipped into poverty between 2002 and 2003, while the number of people without health insurance grew by 1.4 million.

Nearly 36 million Americans now live in poverty, according to a Census Bureau report released Thursday. The percentage of Americans living below the poverty line increased from 12.1 percent in 2002 to 12.4 percent in 2003. The percentage of uninsured Americans, meanwhile, grew from 15.2 percent to 15.6 percent and now number 45 million.


"How can we be the wealthiest nation in the world and yet see poverty continue to grow in alarming ways?" asked Suzii Paytner of the Baptist General Convention Christian Life Commission. "Prosperity is not prosperity if it only benefits a few. Prosperity becomes luxury when it only benefits few."


The evangelical social-action group Call to Renewal called it "a moral outrage that our country cannot do better."


Real median household income remained unchanged between 2002 and 2003, at $43,318, according to the report. The number of people living below the poverty threshold, however, increased 1.3 million, to 35.9 million.


The percentage of people with health insurance coverage declined from 84.8 percent in 2002 to 84.4 percent in 2003, mirroring a drop in the percentage of people covered by employment-based health insurance.


The percentage of people covered by government health insurance rose from 25.7 percent to 26.6 percent, largely due to increases in Medicaid and Medicare coverage.


The percentage of uninsured children remained unchanged at 11.4 percent, or 8.4 million.


The number of families living in poverty grew from 7.2 million to 7.6 million and now represents 10 percent of all families. Corresponding numbers of unrelated people living in poverty was unchanged.


The government considers the average poverty threshold for a family of four to be $18,810 and $12,015 for a family of two.


Figures were compiled from information collected in the 2004 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey.


Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry said the figures confirm that President Bush's economic policies have failed. "Under George Bush's watch, America's families are falling further behind," he said.


David Beckmann of Bread for the World, however, faulted both presidential candidates for a "lack of serious debate during the election cycle about how to help the people struggling to lift themselves out of poverty."


"This is not a red or blue issue," Beckmann said. "Ending the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger is a red, white and blue issue."


Miguel De La Torre, professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich., said the growing gap between the rich and the poor began in the 1970s.


"Bush's tax cuts--which greatly benefited the richest 1 percent of our nation at the expense of the poor and middle class through the curtailing, if not elimination, of social services--only accelerated this ever-increasing gap," he said.


Bob Allen is managing editor of


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