WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans living in poverty soared last year by 2.1 million to a total of 35.7 million, and the poverty rate rose for the second consecutive year, to 14.2 percent, the government reported yesterday.
The new rate is the highest since the peak caused by the recession of the early 1980s. The actual number of poor people is the highest since 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his "War on Poverty."
In a disclosure that may be even more politically damaging to President Bush and his re-election campaign, the Census Bureau also said that the purchasing power of the typical U.S. household shrank last year by nearly $1,100. The report provides statistical evidence of the hardship being experienced by millions of potential voters.
The Census Bureau, in its annual report on income and poverty, said the decline in the purchasing power of Americans was also the second straight as median household income, after adjusting for inflation, fell by $1,077, to $30,126.
A family of four was classified as poor if it had cash income of less than $13,924 in 1991. The poverty level is updated each year to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index.
While Maryland also was hurt by the recession, it remained the nation's fifth-richest state behind Connecticut, New Jersey, Alaska and New Hampshire, the Census Bureau reported.
Maryland's poverty rate for 1989-1991 was 9.3 percent, well below the national average but up from 8.3 percent in 1989. The government only released three-year averages for states because 1991 survey samples were too small to be valid. No racial breakdowns were available.
Median household income in the state dipped to $39,001 in 1989-1991 from $39,386 in 1989, a change not deemed statistically significant. Some 13.1 percent of Marylanders were not covered by health insurance, up from 10.2 percent in 1989, the government said. That was below the U.S. average of 14.1 percent.
Although the whole concept of poverty reflects political and social judgments about the amount of money needed for subsistence, the process of calculating each year's poverty levels is a statistical, non-political operation.
The poverty rate tends to move in tandem with the unemployment rate and with the number of people receiving food stamps. Since those indicators have risen sharply in 1992, economists say it is likely that poverty has continued to spread in this election year.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, cited the new poverty figures in a speech to leaders of the AFL-CIO who were meeting here yesterday.
"This administration has compiled the worst economic record in 50 years -- since Herbert Hoover was president," Mr. Clinton said. "And at Houston, we saw what their promise for the next four years is: more of the same."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the increase in poverty was understandable.
"Certainly, I think we have to expect that the recession would have a significant and serious impact on income and on poverty levels," Mr. Fitzwater said. "We have tried to target a number of programs in the last couple of years particularly to those problems, knowing that the recession would have a deleterious effect."
Economists say the recession began in July 1990. Since mid-1991, the economy has shown some signs of growth, but not enough for the official arbiters to declare the recession over.
But Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, said the high rate of poverty could not be completely explained as a result of the latest recession.
"Many people were facing economic distress even before the recession began," the Maryland Democrat said. "The economic expansion of the 1980s left the poverty rate higher than it had been at the end of the expansion of the 1970s."
After adjustment for inflation, median household income has declined 5.1 percent since 1989. Household purchasing power is lower now than in 1979, the Census Bureau said.
The Census Bureau report made these points:
* The poverty rate for whites rose to 11.3 percent last year, from 10.7 percent in 1990. The rate rose even for white married couples, considered the most economically secure of all families.
For blacks, the poverty rate rose to 32.7 percent last year, from 31.9 percent in 1990. For Hispanics, it rose to 28.7 percent, from 28.1 percent. For Asian-Americans, the poverty rate rose to 13.8 percent last year, from 12.2 percent in 1990.
* In the past two years, household purchasing power declined a total of 5.5 percent for whites, 5.3 percent for blacks, 8.1 percent for Asian-Americans and 5.8 percent for Hispanics.
* The poverty rate for children under 18 years old reached 21.8 percent last year, up from 19.6 percent in 1989 and 20.6 percent in 1990. Poverty is more common among children than among other age groups like the elderly, who had a poverty rate of 12.4 percent last year.