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Weak Economy Forces Millions of Americans into Poverty - 2002-09-28

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that a weak economy is forcing millions of Americans into poverty. President Bush says he remains confident the U.S. economy is headed in the right direction, and new figures indicate the economy grew at a faster than expected rate during the second quarter of the year. But many Americans have been deeply affected by the country's economic slowdown.

Children are just waking up from their afternoon nap at Martha's Table, where workers provide day care, food and other services to people in one of the poorest neighborhoods, Shaw, in the nation's capital.

Many of these children will spend the night with the rest of their family at a homeless shelter nearby.

The president of Martha's Table, Veronica Parke, says that ever since the current economic recession began in March of last year, she has seen a steady increase in the number of families that have fallen into poverty. "Right here on street level we find people very frustrated and very hungry," she said. "So each and every day we are feeding about 1,200 people. Many people come to the door very early in the morning until late at night. People are trying to get jobs. They are not available. They have day jobs that maybe you will get a job for three days out of the week and you can't pay your expenses - rent, food, some clothing. It just does not go around."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's poverty rate rose from 11.3 percent in 2000, to 11.7 percent last year - the first increase in eight years.

At the same time the report says the income of middle-class households fell for the first time since the previous recession ended in 1991.

The chief of the income surveys department at the Census Bureau, Ed Welniak, says the slow recovery from the recession is having a broad impact on families. "The decline in inflation-adjusted household income between 2000 and 2001 was widespread," he said. "Both family and non-family households showed declines, as well as three of the four geographic regions. The exception was the northeast, which maintained its inflation-adjusted 2000 level."

Each day at Martha's Table volunteers prepare more than 3,000 sandwiches and large amounts of soup for the homeless and hungry throughout Washington.

Willis Plate, a 51-year-old homeless man who says he sleeps in a vacant building, says it is difficult to find work. "Basically you see a lot of homeless people with not too many options as far as where to go and lay their head at night," said Willis Plate. "So it is kind of hard, you know. If there is a job problem then there is, you know, a homeless problem. It is hard to get food and like I say, shelter."

Simone Johnson, the director of the Early Childhood program at Martha's Table, points out that because of the recession many parents cannot afford the basics of life. "We've seen parents come in with empty bottles, not enough money to buy milk," she said. "We fill up bottles and then at the end of the day parents will ask for a little carton of milk just to tide them over to the next day. We are seeing more of that."

Despite the Census Bureau survey, there are some indications of an economic turnaround. Revised government figures show the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the second quarter, a performance that was slightly stronger than previously thought but still sharply lower than figures from last year. Nevertheless, President Bush says he remains confident the economy is headed in the right direction. "Well I'm optimistic," he said. "Because one, I'm optimistic about America in general. I mean the American people are resilient, they are strong. We got the best workers in the world. Inflation is down. Interest rates are low. So when you combine the productivity of the American people with low interest rates and low inflation - these are the ingredients for growth. But there is more to do."

President Bush visited Martha's Table last year shortly before Christmas to urge Americans to volunteer to help the poor.

The president's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, has been a frequent visitor, and generally spends her time reading to the children here.

The head of Martha's Table, Veronica Parke, says she understands Mr. Bush needs to be what she calls the economy's chief cheerleader, but hopes he will visit again soon to observe the impact the current economic conditions are having on the poorest Americans.