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Inquirer Editorial: Poverty’s grip is tighter

Not since 1959 have there been so many poor people in the United States.

In 2009, 43.6 million people – 14.3 percent of the population – fell below the poverty line. The previous year, the poverty rate was 13.2 percent.

More than one in five American children are living in poverty. In Philadelphia, it’s about one in three.

The deep recession that began in late 2007 has contributed greatly to the rise in poverty. Economists now say the recession ended in June 2009, making it the longest since World War II.

But the economic recovery under President Obama has been weak. Unemployment remains around 10 percent, and the number of people in poverty is likely to grow higher still. In previous recessions, the poverty rate typically has not fallen until a year after the unemployment rate starts to fall.

The rising number of our neighbors who are struggling to obtain food and shelter has urgent implications for anyone who is able to donate to charities, and for policymakers in government.

The spirit of charitable giving often hits people strongest around the holidays. But the government’s report on the rise in poverty is a vivid reminder that hunger and desperation are not seasonal.

Food banks, church-run charities, and other nonprofits have a pressing need for donations of money, clothing, food, and other necessities. Two of the most prominent food banks locally are Philabundance (www.philabundance.org) and the Food Bank of South Jersey (www.foodbanksj.org).

Lawmakers, too, can take away something from the report on poverty. The scope of the problem could have been even worse without government intervention.

The Census Bureau calculated that unemployment benefits alone kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009. Last year’s economic recovery act pushed by Obama extended these benefits, but unemployment insurance increasingly has become a target of conservative candidates.

An emergency jobs program that has paid employers to hire 12,000 people in Pennsylvania and 1,500 in New Jersey is set to expire on Sept. 30, unless Congress votes to extend it.

The fund has provided money to 37 states to help the unemployed find permanent jobs and enable local businesses to expand. Lawmakers should renew it for one more year, at a cost of $2.5 billion.

Another program to help low-income people, the Earned Income Tax Credit, also is set to expire on Dec. 31. With the poverty rate at a 15-year high, lawmakers should try to find a way to extend this tax relief for those who need it most.

The slow pace of economic recovery means that more people need help climbing out of poverty. In the wealthiest of nations, it’s our moral obligation to act.

Read this article on the Inquirer website.

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