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U.S. poverty falls as rate rises in Ohio; Michigan level also grows

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WASHINGTON - Five years into a national economic recovery, the share of Americans living in poverty finally has dropped.

But don't tell that to people in Ohio and Michigan.

Detroit moved up to No. 1 on the list of big cities with the highest poverty rates, the U.S. Census Bureau reported yesterday.

And Ohio has the unwelcome distinction of having two big cities in the top four on that list.

Cincinnati jumped from No. 8 on last year's list to No. 3, trailing only Detroit and Buffalo, according to data from the American Community Survey. The rankings reflect the number of people living below the poverty level in 2006.

The Census said Detroit had 32.5 percent of its people living in poverty.

Cleveland, ranked No. 1 last year, fell to No. 4.

The poverty level is the official measure used to decide eligibility for federal health, housing, nutrition, and child-care benefits. It differs by family size and makeup. For a family of four with two children, for example, the poverty level is $20,444.



The poverty rate - the percentage of people living below poverty - helps shape the debate on the health of the nation's economy.

Overall, the nation's poverty rate dropped last year, with the Census Bureau reporting that 36.5 million Americans, or 12.3 percent, were living in poverty in 2006 - down from 12.6 percent in 2005.

Toledo's poverty rate dropped from 23.4 percent to 22.7 percent between 2005 and 2006.

In Lucas County, the percentage of people below the poverty level dropped to 16.8 percent in 2006 from 17.4 percent in 2005.

"We're encouraged it's heading in that direction. Poverty levels in Lucas County have been a struggle," Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said.

The loss of manufacturing jobs has affected the local economy, but resources such as the Bridges Out of Poverty program and The Source work with those in poverty to help them succeed, Mr. Gerken said.

"I feel good that we've held our own and improved in a very tough economy," he said.

The median household income in Lucas County also rose from $40,348 in 2005 to $42,296 last year.

While both of those are good signs of an improving economy, a more critical look at the num-bers should be done to see where people are in need of help, said David Kontur, executive director of the Lucas County Family Council.

Mr. Kontur said he would be more interested to study the number of children in poverty and the income levels of the various races in the county.

"It seems to be positive news for our community, but certainly raises questions in terms of how does that really translate for people in our community," he said.

The poverty rate fell more significantly in Sandusky, which went from 14 percent in 2005 to just 10 percent in 2006. And Monroe saw a similar drop from 10 percent in 2005 to 6.2 percent in 2006.

Based on numbers alone, the news isn't as good for Findlay, which saw a nearly 3 percentage point increase in the population percentage below the poverty level. According to the survey, 10,019 people were below the poverty level in 2006 compared to 8,109 people in 2005. That equates to 14.1 percent in 2006 and 11.4 percent the year before.

Lima saw a slight drop in poverty-level status from 13.1 percent in 2005 to 11.7 percent in 2006.

The rankings put Ohio 21st in the nation for frequency of poverty, with 13.3 percent of its people living below the poverty line within the past 12 months.

Michigan ranked 20th, with 13.5 percent of its people living in poverty.

"We're in a slump right now," Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said. "We've had a stagnant economy for many years. We've had significant job loss, and I think that's reflected in the numbers you're seeing."

Cincinnati had 27.8 percent of its residents living in poverty in 2006. The city was No. 22 in 2004 with 19.6 percent and last year entered the top 10 with 25 percent living in poverty.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson questioned the methodology, noting that his city ranked 12th in poverty two years ago.

"It really doesn't mean anything," Mr. Jackson said. "We went from one to 12 to one. Now we're four. That doesn't really reflect our overall condition."

The survey indicates that 27 percent of Cleveland's population was below the poverty level last year, compared with 32.4 percent in 2005.

The rankings include all U.S. cities with 250,000 or more people. Dayton and Youngstown were not included on the list because of their smaller size, but the survey showed them with higher percentages of people living in poverty than Cincinnati or Cleveland. The survey indicated that 28.8 percent of Dayton's population lives in poverty, while 30.5 percent of Youngstown's residents fall into that category.

The Census Bureau said median household income increased slightly, to $48,200.

Experts said the rise in income was mainly a reflection of an increase in the number of family members entering the workplace or working longer hours. Average wages for men and women actually declined for the third consecutive year.

Hispanics were the only ethnic group with a statistically significant drop in their poverty rate, to 20.6 percent from 21.8. The number of whites, blacks, and Asians living in poverty remained virtually unchanged.

About 24 percent of blacks lived in poverty in 2006, compared with 8.2 percent of whites and 10.3 percent of Asians.

Overall, the numbers provided some good economic news at a time when financial markets have been rattled by a slumping housing market. But they were tempered by an increase in the number of Americans without health insurance, from 44.8 million in 2005 to 47 million last year.

Some advocates said the numbers were evidence of an uneven economy that is leaving many Americans behind.

"Too many Americans find themselves still stuck in the deep hole dug by economic policies favoring the wealthy," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D., N.Y.) said. "Income remains lower than it was six years ago, poverty is higher, and the number of Americans without health insurance continues to grow."

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said there is a lot of good news in the numbers.

"We're looking at a situation where unemployment was down, and it was down for single mothers, who make up a substantial portion of the people in poverty," Mr. Besharov said.

The last significant decline in the poverty rate occurred in 2000, during the Clinton administration, when it went from 11.9 percent to 11.3 percent.

The poverty rate increased every year for the next four years, peaking at 12.7 percent in 2004. It was 12.6 percent in 2005, but Census officials said that change was statistically insignificant.

"When we keep taxes low, spending in check, and our economy open - conditions that empower businesses to create new jobs - all Americans benefit," President Bush said in a statement.

The share of Americans without health insurance hit 15.8 percent last year, the highest percentage since 1998. In 2005, 15.3 percent were without insurance.

The income group with the most people losing insurance was households making $75,000 or more a year, showing that the issue is not limited to the poor.

Mr. Bush said the growing number of people without health insurance presents a challenge. "Containing costs and making health insurance more affordable is the best way to reverse this long-term trend," Mr. Bush said.

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