Government officials, advocacy groups and economists in the United States are grappling with solutions to reduce high poverty rates. The U.S. Census Bureau says that last year, the number of poor Americans was the highest since such data started being collected five decades ago.
People living in poverty in the United States in 2009 was 14.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau, nearly a full percentage point higher than the previous year.
In terms of overall numbers, the bureau says 43.6 million people last year were living in poverty, which is defined as a yearly income of less than $22,000 for a family of four.
Avis Jones-DeWeever of the National Council of Negro Women examined the data closely and says that more than one in four African Americans and Hispanics in the United States live in poverty as well as one in five children.
"Frankly, these statistics need to serve as a wake-up call for America," said Avis Jones-DeWeever. "The time is now to once again mount a serious attack on poverty. In fact, this imperative might be more critical now than ever, given what I would characterize as the tattered state of our safety net."
But at a panel of poverty analysts meeting in Washington this week, the director of Deloitte Consulting, Wade Horn, warned that the U.S. political environment is not conducive to more government spending.
"I am not sure that we are in a political context at the moment in which it is an easy sell to dramatically increase government spending," said Wade Horn. "In fact, given the focus on the debt and the deficit, I think we may be at the beginning of a retrenchment in government spending, not an expansion of government spending."
Horn called for aggressive government economic policies to create job growth in the private sector, while pursuing anti-poverty strategies.
The high poverty rate comes amid high unemployment, particularly in male-dominated sectors of the economy, such as construction and manufacturing.
Avis Jones-DeWeever of the National Council of Negro Women says this makes equal rights issues regarding women even more pressing.
"I do think it is important that people look at how well women do because for many two-parent families, they are now the only ones working," said Jones-DeWeever. "And so it is that much more important that women receive pay equity and get fair pay because it not only benefits them, it benefits their entire family."
LaDonna Pavetti from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said several U.S. states have initiated programs to subsidize jobs in the private sector, with great success.
"What we have seen with these programs is that they have been a huge benefit, particularly to small businesses," said LaDonna Pavetti. "And what has happened in those small businesses is that it has allowed them to be able to keep their businesses moving during times of low demand. And it has allowed some businesses to expand so that they are actually creating new jobs by that."
Pavetti said that many of these programs are running out of money, and that hundreds of thousands of people who have been employed might lose their jobs.
But Nicholas Eberstadt with the American Enterprise Institute warned against making government subsidized employment a permanent part of the U.S. economy.
"Many of the Western European countries that have pursued some of these programs, over time, you see labor force rigidities and barriers to entry actually developing there," said Nicholas Eberstadt. "So I think you have to be very cautious about this."
President Barack Obama says his economic policies, such as stimulus spending, are keeping millions more Americans out of poverty. The president has blamed the policies by his predecessor, George W. Bush, for creating the current economic hardships of many Americans. But opposition Republicans say huge government spending has made the situation worse.
The new poverty figures come only weeks before November's Congressional midterm elections.