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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with a look at poverty in the U.S. through numbers and images. Today, the Census Bureau released its annual report on income and poverty. It found the poverty rate rose in 2010 to the highest level in 17 years. Forty-six million people are categorized as poor, and the continued lack of jobs was the main cause, as we hear now from NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: This was the gloomy unemployment news we heard over and over again last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The U.S. economy lost jobs last month for the first time this year. The Labor Department...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The U.S. Labor Department said unemployment rose to 9.8 percent in November, and the economy...

JIM ZARROLI: The report says the U.S. economy lost 131,000 jobs last month.

FESSLER: And today, we heard the troubling results of those job losses. In 2010, the nation's poverty rate was 15.1 percent, the highest it's been since 1993. And the nation's median income dropped to about $49,500, a decline of more than 6 percent since the start of the recession.

RICH BURKHAUSER: This is bad news across the board. It's certainly bad news for the lowest part of the income distribution, but it's also true for the average American and even for people in the upper-income brackets.

FESSLER: Economist Rich Burkhauser, of Cornell, says income declined for just about everyone and surprisingly at a faster rate than it did in 2008, when the recession was in full swing. Burkhauser says the main reason is a big decline in the workforce.

BURKHAUSER: The number of males who are working has fallen by over three million workers since 2007, and last year, it fell by another 650,000. So that's very disturbing.

FESSLER: Employment among females also shrank. And the percentage of the employed who only work part time also grew. This pushed more and more people below the poverty line, which the Census Bureau defines as a family of four with income below about $22,000 a year. For certain groups, the news was especially bad. The poverty rate for Hispanics was almost 27 percent. It was about the same for African-Americans, like Andre Colter of Washington D.C.

ANDRE COLTER: No one dreams of becoming homeless. No one dreams of becoming unemployed.

FESSLER: But Colter is both. Since May, he's lived on a bench on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and Congress, which are trying to reach some agreement on what to do to create more jobs. Colter is looking for a job in construction, where he worked until earlier this year, but he's not having much luck.

COLTER: I would take an office job. I'll start in the mailroom. I'll work on your trash truck. Right now, I'll take anything.

FESSLER: The Census Bureau says short of sleeping on the streets, many more people are doubling up, living with friends and relatives. Since the start of the recession, the number of doubled-up households has grown about 10 percent to almost 22 million. And this past spring, almost six million young adults ages 25 to 34 were living with their parents - over a million more than before the downturn began. The bureau says almost half of these young adults would be considered poor if their parents weren't supporting them.

Another disturbing figure is the continued rise in child poverty. Last year, 22 percent were poor. Sheldon Danziger is a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. He says this does not bode well for the future.

SHELDON DANZIGER: We know that children growing up in poverty are more likely to drop out of high school than non-poor children, and they're less likely to go on to college, which will contribute to lower wages in the next generation.

FESSLER: Both he and Burkhauser note that government spending on things such as unemployment insurance helped keep the poverty rate from going even higher. But like the politicians, they differ over what should be done now. Danziger thinks unemployment benefits need to continue to prevent more people from dropping below the poverty line. Burkhauser prefers cutting marginal tax rates to encourage more businesses to hire. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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