Poverty rate reaches 1 in 6

There are some in Congress who see crises like this one and still think tax breaks for the wealthy are what the country really needs.

The portion of Americans living in poverty last year rose to the highest level since 1993, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, fresh evidence that the sluggish economic recovery has done nothing for the country’s poorest citizens.

And in new evidence of economic distress among the middle class, real median household incomes declined by 2.3 percent in 2010 from the previous year, to $49,400.

An additional 2.6 million people slipped below the poverty line in 2010, census officials said, making 46.2 million people in poverty in the United States, the highest number in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been tracking it, said Trudi Renwick, chief of the Poverty Statistic Branch at the Census Bureau. That represented 15.1 percent of the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Jonathan Cohn noted the federal government has the ability to intervene and “could send more money to the states, so that they could expand Medicaid further and, by the way, stop laying off so many public workers. It could create still more jobs with investments in public works and well-targeted tax breaks — say, the kinds that President Obama proposed last week.”

Indeed, Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, told Jonathan that the American Jobs Act, if (somehow) approved by Congress, “would keep roughly 3 million people out of poverty in 2012.”

Given the prevailing political winds, and areas of emphasis in the media and on Capitol Hill, keeping Americans out of poverty doesn’t seem to be the selling the point it should be. Indeed, proponents of the American Jobs Act would likely see a lot of shrugged shoulders if they told Republicans, “Pass this bill and you’ll help keep 3 million Americans from slipping below the poverty line.”

But with so many struggling families, this is a national crisis, whether GOP officials choose to care or not.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.