WASHINGTON -- With new data showing poverty in the USA at the highest level in nearly three decades, White House officials and liberal economists say it's become critical for Congress to quickly approve a jobs-creation package.
The data show that 46 million Americans are living in poverty. The Census Bureau released the grim numbers Tuesday as President Obama traveled the battleground state of Ohio to press for his $447 billion jobs measure.
"We are at a crossroads," said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. "We can, through policy, make things better. or through policy. we can make things worse."
Katharine Abraham, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said that the increase in poverty runs parallel with the rise in unemployment — about 1.8 million more adults did not work in 2010 than a year earlier. She touted the jobs package — which includes a payroll tax holiday for workers and employers, tax credits for employers who hire long-term unemployed workers and an extension of unemployment benefits — as a mechanism that can help stem the poverty rate.
"It's a good package," Abraham said. "If it is not enacted, there could be people who experience significant problems."
Minorities and women were hit hardest. The poverty rate among women climbed to 14.5% in 2010 from 13.9% in 2009, the highest in 17 years. The rate of extreme poverty among women climbed to 6.3% in 2010 from 5.9% in 2009, the highest rate ever recorded
"The record numbers … should send an urgent wake-up call to Congress to tackle the immediate deficit facing this nation — the lack of jobs — by acting swiftly on President Obama's job creation proposals and passing a robust package that will put millions of American women and men back to work," said Joan Entmacher, a vice president at the National Women's Law Center.
House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have both suggested that Republicans would be receptive to portions of the president's job plan. However, Boehner, Cantor and other GOP leaders say the first stimulus plan did not work as Obama claimed and the new jobs proposal raises taxes on Americans who help create jobs.
Obama will perhaps face the greatest resistance from Republicans on extending unemployment benefits. Republicans agreed to extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks in the spring of 2008 but are resistant to doing it again. Without the extension, 3.2 million more Americans would have fallen into poverty, Abraham noted.
Overall, median household income has declined about $3,800 since 1999.
"Economists talk about the lost decade in Japan, a period where the macro economy stumbled along for years," said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Biden now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. "With these 2010 data, we can confirm the lost decade for the American middle class."