AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. poverty rate last year was unchanged from the year before. That's according to new figures today from the Census Bureau. But that still means that nearly one in six Americans were poor. The government says that median household income also dropped last year, while income inequality grew.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Over the past year, we've heard from many struggling Americans, from 69-year-old Robert Laws, waiting for food at a pantry in Tennessee...
ROBERT LAWS: And I can thank the Lord for it, too. It really helps on me, because I don't have no money to buy food with.
FESSLER: ...to Steven White, living at a nearby shelter after he lost his job and then his home...
STEVEN WHITE: A beautiful home right on the river. I could look out the kitchen window and see the river flowing. And I miss that a lot.
FESSLER: ...to Jennifer Stepp, a single, working mother of three in Pennsylvania.
JENNIFER STEPP: At the end of the day, when all the bills are paid, I have nothing left. So - I mean, I don't like to consider myself poor, but actually I am.
FESSLER: And last year, she had lots of company. The Census Bureau says 46.2 million people in the U.S. lived below the poverty line - about $23,000 for a family
STEPP: Consider myself poor but, actually I am.
FESSLER: And last year, she had lots of company. The Census Bureau says 46.2 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line - about $23,000 dollars for a family of four. The number of poor was almost exactly the same as it was the year before but still historically high.
RICHARD BURKHAUSER: I guess I would say the bad news isn't as bad as it has been.
FESSLER: Richard Burkhauser's an economist at Cornell University. He notes that the Census Bureau credits a shift from part-time to full-time jobs among low-income workers for keeping the numbers from growing. But at the same time, he says, the nation's median household income dropped 1.5 percent to just over $50,000.
BURKHAUSER: But it didn't fall as much as it did last year. And the beginnings of recovery are in the wind. The single brightest note in the numbers that we saw today was the increase in the employment of full-time, full-year workers to 2.6 million.
FESSLER: But Burkhauser says the job situation is still a long way off from where it was before the recession. And there were other troubling signs. Income inequality grew last year with the share of overall income growing for the very wealthiest individuals, while it declined or stayed the same for everyone else. And poverty among children was almost 22 percent, affecting more than 16 million kids.
OLIVIA GOLDEN: Not only is the child poverty rate stubbornly high, but the youngest children are the poorest.
FESSLER: Olivia Golden is a children and families expert at the Urban Institute.
GOLDEN: Children under six, their rate is stuck at nearly one in four, or nearly 25 percent of kids. And what we know from child development research is that those young kids are at their most vulnerable.
FESSLER: Which she says is one factor to consider in responding to the new figures. The Census Bureau notes that the poverty numbers don't take into account the impact of government programs such as food stamps. If those benefits are included as income, some four million fewer people would be considered poor. Golden says that's a good reason to keep those programs strong. But that's all part of the ongoing presidential campaign debate: how best to boost the economy and get people back to work. Today, a coalition of religious groups called the Circle of Protection released videos made by President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on their plans to help the poor.
(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCLE OF PROTECTION VIDEO)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can pay down our debt in a balanced and responsible way. But we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.
FESSLER: The President said the poor shouldn't be asked to sacrifice more to give tax cuts to the wealthy. Romney, who supports those cuts, said the best way to help the poor is with a healthy economy.
(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCLE OF PROTECTION VIDEO)
MITT ROMNEY: A strong economy will reduce our budget deficits, and it will reduce poverty as well. But at this point, budget cuts are also going to be necessary. And I intend to make them.
FESSLER: But he added that he's committed to protecting the poor. How that will translate into specifics is unclear, although today's numbers will likely keep the issue of poverty at least part of the economic debate. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.